Inspired by slating controversies, group targets small-time, big-impact elected positions

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Over the last two years, a faith-based political engagement group has quietly thrown its resources toward recruiting Indianapolis residents—typically without political backgrounds—for little-known elected roles that occasionally have major impact: precinct committeeperson positions.

Not-for-profit Act Indiana says 60 people associated with the organization were elected in last month’s primary-year elections for Democratic precinct committee positions. That’s more than one in five of the 291 precinct committeepeople elected, according to Marion County Election Board Deputy Director Brent Stinson.

The small-time elected positions, which often go unfilled and are supplemented with appointees, have played a central role in inter-Marion County Democratic Party discontent.

“Our effort was a really big push to get ordinary people to see that they can have a say in decisions that are made in their city, their county and their state, if they step up,” Act Indiana Political Director Garrett Blad said. The group focuses on incarceration, deportation and economic inequality.

Precinct committeeperson positions “oftentimes get looped in with the larger idea of running for office, which feels overwhelming and big for people, but it’s actually a very small role” Blad added. “A lot of people maybe don’t think it’s for them. So we had to do a lot of work of explaining to people, through a lot of conversations, about what this is and how this actually could be the perfect [position] for someone who really cares about their neighborhood, their city.”

Precinct committeepeople represent precincts, a county’s smallest political units. Marion County Democratic primary voters elect them in midterm years, while Republicans elect theirs in presidential years. The positions are traditionally the close-to-the-ground link between political parties or elected officials and voters. 

The role includes engaging neighbors on politics and the party, registering new voters, recruiting volunteers, participating in party meetings and events, supporting candidates and more, according to the Indiana Democratic Party’s precinct committeeperson handbook. Things get more involved in election years.

Precinct committeepeople also elect county party chairs and executive officers, and notably, those eligible can vote on filling ballot and office vacancies.

Blad said Act Indiana’s focus on precinct committeeperson positions is relatively new, borne out of a contentious internal Marion County prosecutor’s election in 2019. 

That’s when precinct committeepeople chose then- Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Mears to replace his predecessor, Terry Curry, over Mayor Joe Hogsett’s pick. During the process, several Democrats alleged that party Chair Kate Sweeney Bell removed Mears supporters and friends from the list of precinct committeepeople, as well current or former employees of the Prosecutor’s Office, in a bid to help Hogsett’s pick.

Bell said then that the party had simply received updated addresses showing some weren’t living in their precincts anymore, while others resigned on their own. Elected precinct committeepeople must live where they serve, but their appointed counterparts aren’t subject to the same requirement.

“We saw frustration that a lot of the [appointed] folks in these roles didn’t actually live in their neighborhoods. They didn’t actually represent the people that they were voting to replace elected officials for,” Blad said. “We want to make sure that ordinary folks who live in their neighborhoods are … in these roles. Not the connected few that have been running things for a long time.”

Other local controversies have included included a narrow contest to fill a City-County Council seat in 2020, in which an elected precinct committeeperson cast the tie-breaking vote for himself, winning the internal election. In addition, a group of mostly Black elected officials have alleged discrimination in the precinct committeeperson selection process, among other complaints.

Blad described Act Indiana’s election results as a “sea change.” But that still leaves most of the positions for Marion County’s 621 precincts unfilled.

And that’s relatively consistent with the past; 201 precinct committeepeople were elected in the 2018 midterm primaries, according to Bell, who said she appointed 294 more. Most, she said, were elected officials or previous precinct committeepeople who’d lost their elections.

The low number of precinct positions filled through the election process has led to criticism that the parties have few incentives to get elected officials in roles they could fill with appointees.

“You’ve got more control over them if you appoint them, and you’ve got more control over how they vote in most cases, because they’re people that may work for you,” said former state lawmaker and longtime Democrat Ed Mahern. But, he countered, “There’s nothing to prevent anyone from running for precinct committeeman if you are affiliated with that party.”

Bell also pushed back on the accusation, saying, “At least for me, that’s not the case.”

“We’ve got precinct committeepeople of all different ages, and all different races and all different religions,” Bell said.

“And they’re all welcome,” she added, including those supported by Act Indiana.

Act Indiana was originally founded as IndyCAN! a decade ago, and became a statewide organization in 2017, according to Blad. It’s the same group pushing Hogsett to create a clinician-led mobile crisis team to respond to emergencies rooted in mental health problems.

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