By: Evan Fraughiger
Common Cause Indiana v. Marion County Election Board is a case arising out of the region surrounding Indiana’s capital, Indianapolis. Following the 2008 election, Republican members of the Marion County Election Board allegedly engaged in a plan to prevent Marion County (the largest county in Indiana) from expanding its early voting sites. Marion County originally had three early voting locations in 2008 but in every subsequent election, that number was reduced to one solitary site. For a more detailed account of the history of this case and the surrounding context, please read my earlier post here.
While both sides of Common Cause Indiana v. Marion County Election Board have not yet reached any formal agreement or settlement, different solutions and attempts at an agreement have been floated with varying degrees of success. According to my conversation with Julia Vaugn, the Policy Director for Common Cause Indiana, the two sides have informally met and started to discuss potential terms for a settlement. No other information is available now about the talks between the parties but local representatives and government officials have offered hints about where the case will go in the future.
One issue that Indiana Republicans proposed as part of a settlement was the creation of “vote centers” across Indiana that would be used to administer both early and election day voting. This idea was first proposed by Melissa Thompson, the newest Republican member of the Marion County Election Board. Vote centers differ from the current Indiana system that is based on neighborhood precincts, because vote centers allow individuals to cast their ballot at any vote center in their jurisdiction rather than just one location based on their address. Under this plan, each one of Marion County’s nine townships would have a vote center for early voting purposes rather than just one location as it stands now. Republicans, by putting forward this idea, are at least in part acknowledging the early voting problem that currently exists in Marion County. Republicans are pointing to the advantages of vote centers such as voter convenience due to the increased number of locations and the financial savings. Democrats and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit however, are very skeptical of this proposed solution. In part, they view this solution as a vehicle to change the subject away from the practices alleged in the lawsuit. More importantly, Democrats acknowledge that while vote centers would solve the early voting problem, they would also dramatically reduce the number of election day polling locations. Republicans have tried to push this idea in the past but it has failed because of a lack of bipartisan support, and it looks like the same problems are arising now.
In addition to proposing vote centers, Republican lawmakers, in mid-October, signaled that they were open to election day registration and expanding absentee voting by mail as another possible solution to Indiana’s growing voting rights legislation problem (including the case at issue here). Republican Indiana State Senator Greg Walker stated that he is already drawing up legislation to this effect. Democrats received this idea much more favorably than the vote center proposal, but it appears to suffer from the same defect as vote centers regarding the case at hand: it is more of an attempt to change the subject than it is a way to explain the allegations raised in Common Cause Indiana v. Marion County Election Board. Another concern from Democrats is that Republicans, including Greg Walker, want to tie these reforms with language that helps “clean-up” Indiana’s voter rolls. This issue garners wide-ranging pushback from the leftover fears of disenfranchisement. At this point, however, this proposal seems to be the most likely to succeed, at least compared with the proposed vote centers.
Finally, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson might have offered the most important insight into how the defendant’s argument in the Marion County case might develop. Lawson is currently making the argument that there is no correlation between early voting access and voter turnout. Lawson argues that early voting only helps those individuals who were going to vote regardless of the day. It is this type of argument that could be used as a defense against the claims brought by Common Cause Indiana. This position has quickly become very controversial in the state with the Indiana Democratic Party Chairman stating, “Lawson is either overlooking the obvious or she’s providing cover for Republicans who continue to play politics with early voting.” However, a representative from the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures was not so quick to rebut Lawson’s argument and stated that the current research does not show the “obvious” conclusion that Democrats suggest.
All three of the above observations do not provide clear answers to where the case at issue is heading in the future, but these developments can offer important guidance as to the scope of the broader conversation surrounding the settlement discussions. If anything is clear, it is the fact that this settlement and negotiation process will last for a long time as each side (and each party) have resisted all of the topics above. Meanwhile, the voters in Marion County are stuck in the middle of the battle without a solution or remedy in sight and the 2018 midterm elections rapidly advancing.