Common Cause, NAACP sue over Marion County early-voting site

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Marion County’s single location for early voting provides unequal access to the ballot, argues a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by Common Cause and the NAACP. Plaintiffs in the case allege Indianapolis’ sole early-voting precinct is discriminatory and constitutes voter suppression.

The lawsuit takes aim at the system in which one of the three unelected members of the Marion County Election Board, most recently Republican Party member Maura Hoff, has vetoed multiple early-voting locations in the state’s most populous county. The result has been sometimes-long lines at the only location for early voting, the Marion County Clerk’s office in the Indianapolis City-County Building.

“Since 2010, partisan politics has meant less access to early voting in Marion County than in other counties across the state,” Common Cause policy director Julia Vaughn said.

Vaughn and other plaintiffs spoke at a news conference outside the City-County Building Tuesday while announcing the suit.

“The Indiana NAACP is proud to stand here today to announce this challenge because this statute is harming all voters in Marion County but having a particularly pernicious effect on voters of color,” said Indiana NAACP President Barbara Bolling Williams. “It’s shameful that the largest county in our state only has one early voting site.”

She noted her home county of Lake, the state’s second-most populous, had eight satellite voting locations in 2016, and 22.5 percent of voters there cast early in-person ballots.

Hoff, an Indianapolis solo attorney, did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment Tuesday.  

“What we’re dealing with here is both a fundamental constitutional right to vote as well as a statutory right to participate in the early-voting exercise on the same terms that are available to voters in counties other than Marion County, where we’ve consistently been restricted to one location, even though we’re by far the largest in population,” said lead plaintiff’s attorney Bill Groth.

Groth filed the complaint that’s before Senior District Judge Sarah Evans Barker in the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

The suit alleges a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due process violations, violations of the Voting Rights Act, and a violation of the Indiana Constitution’s provision under Article 2, Section 1 that “elections shall be free and equal.”

The suit requests an injunction and an order that refusal to approve satellite voting locations for early in-person voting violated these constitutional protections. Groth said the state law allowing a single election board member to veto satellite voting is unconstitutional as applied to Marion County.

Marion County’s neighboring counties—Boone, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Johnson and Morgan —authorized multiple early-voting locations and experienced in-person early-voting rates from 26 percent in Hamilton to 65 percent in Hancock during the 2016 general election, the suit says. By contrast, just 12 percent of Marion County voters cast early in-person ballots last year at the single early-voting location.

When the county election board authorized two satellite early-voting sites in 2008, however, more than 19 percent of Indianapolis voters cast their ballots that way.

“We can see reflected in the number of people who turn out for early voting that since the satellite locations were eliminated, the raw number and the percentage have both gone down, whereas in other counites that have accessible voting, the percentage of people who vote early has gone way up,” Groth said.

Plaintiffs at the news conference Tuesday highlighted the lack of parking and unequal access to the City-County Building, particularly for Indianapolis residents who live far from downtown.

Indianapolis-Marion County NAACP President Chrystal Ratcliffe said the statistics bear out the greater numbers of people who vote when more early-voting sites are made available.

“We need to become stronger in the community to make sure that happens,” Ratcliffe said. “We can no longer disenfranchise anyone to vote.”

Plaintiffs Doris McDougal and John Windle shared their concerns about the lack of equal access to early voting. McDougal said it’s important to her to vote in person, and Marion County’s lack of early-voting sites causes long lines not just during early voting, but on Election Day as well. “Marion County voters have been negatively impacted by this situation for too long and it is time to end it,” she said.

Windle credited reading a newspaper column about the lack of satellite voting and feeling something needed to be done. He contacted Common Cause via social media and agreed to participate in the legal challenge. He said when he learned “an unelected, unaccountable member of an election board is given a veto over the establishment of early-voting sites against the wishes of the majority of the board, I was pretty upset.”

Indiana law provides that county election boards must unanimously endorse satellite early-voting locations. The boards are comprised of the elected county clerk and one member each appointed by the county Democratic and Republican parties. When a county doesn’t offer satellite early voting, the law requires early voting take place in the county clerk’s office.

Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge, along with Democratic election board member Keith Johnson, supported satellite early-voting locations last year.

“The Marion County Election Board will review the lawsuit filed regarding the lack of satellite early voting locations in recent elections,” Eldridge said Tuesday in a written statement. “The Board takes seriously any allegations regarding access to voting in Marion County. Speaking for myself as the elected clerk of Marion County, my position has been and remains that establishing satellite early voting locations is an essential component of providing meaningful and convenient access to voting for all Marion County residents.”

The suit anticipates the Marion County election board “will next consider a resolution to establish satellite sites for early, in-person absentee voting in early 2018, prior to the 2018 federal off-year elections, and based on recent history that such resolution will be defeated by the opposition of Defendant Hoff or her Republican-appointed successor, despite such resolution being supported by the MCEB’s other two members.”

“We think our argument absolutely makes the case that voters in this county have a bigger burden in terms of accessing early voting. Those are the facts, and we believe this law needed to be challenged, and we’ll see what the court says,” Vaughn said.

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