Judge orders Marion County to offer even more early-voting sites

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Marion County voters will have at least six locations to choose from if they want to cast early votes in this fall’s general election, according to consent decree signed this week by a federal judge.

Under the decree, the Marion County Election Board is expected to establish a minimum of five satellite offices in time for the 2018 general election and for each subsequent general and municipal election. It also calls for a minimum of two satellite offices for future primary elections.

Since 2009, the only place for county residents to cast in-person early votes has been in the Marion County Clerk's Office in the City-County Building.

The election board will have the discretion to choose the locations and operating hours of the offices, according to the decree signed by Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Indiana.

In April, Barker ruled that Marion County needed to establish at least two satellite voting sites for future elections. She raised the number this week after further litigation in the case.

The decision came after government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP sued the local election board for effectively disenfranchising local voters.

“We brought this lawsuit because Marion County voters deserve the same access to early voting as voters in neighboring counties,” said Common Cause Indiana Policy Director Julia Vaughn in a written statement. "This means that early voting will be far more accessible in Marion County, and that is a big win for voters in this community."

Marion County had as many as three satellite offices for early in-person voting in 2008 and 2009, but the board did away with the sites in subsequent elections.

The decree agreed that the board made the decision “despite available funding." It also said the Clerk's Office was unsuitable as the only early-voting location because it offers “little or no free parking” and can take hours to reach by public transportation.

During the same time that Indianapolis failed to expand early voting options, the practice expanded in surrounding counties, including Hamilton, Hendricks, Boone, Hancock, and Johnson.

Those counties saw an increase in voter turnout from 2008 to 2016, while Marion County had a decrease in voter turnout.

According to the consent decree, an analysis performed by the plaintiffs’ showed that the relative lack of satellite voting locations “disproportionately impacted African-American voters in Marion County, and that this disproportionate burden was, in part, caused by or linked to social and historical conditions that have or currently produce discrimination against African-American voters.”

Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of Indianapolis NAACP branch, said in a statement that “for too long Marion County voters had second class access to early voting and this lack of access had a disproportionate impact on African-American voters.”

"Voter suppression efforts like this have no place in our county and we are proud to have been part of the effort to expand voting access,” Ratcliffe said. "We’ll be working hard in the coming months to ensure that all voters who want to cast an early in-person ballot understand that the City-County Building is no longer the only option available.”

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