Early voting starts, but without the crush of voters seen in 2020

Keywords Elections / Politics
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Early voting kicked off this week across Indiana, and while the state had a record turnout of early voters in the 2020 presidential primary, those numbers likely will be closer to historical averages for this year’s low-key midterm primary.

Voters have between now and May 2 to cast ballots early ahead of the primary election on May 3.

The last primary election in Indiana came early in the pandemic, in 2020. In response to health concerns, Indiana allowed no-excuse mail-in voting, and about 553,116 people voted by mail or at early-voting locations. That was just over half of voters out of the over 1 million people who voted in the 2020 primary.

Bill Moreau, co-founder of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, told IBJ in an email that there was “no doubt” no-excuse mail-in voting played a positive role in voter turnout in the 2020 primary. The Indiana Citizen is a non-partisan not-for-profit dedicated to educating and increasing the number of engaged Hoosiers and registered voters.

Indiana Republican Chair Kyle Hupfer disagreed that more access to mail-in voting contributed to an increase in turnout. He noted for comparison that the 2018 midterm general election saw record turnout for a midterm election in the state. More than 2.3 million voted in the 2018 general election.

This year, Indiana returns to its traditional restrictions on mail-in absentee voting but options to vote early in person in Marion County have expanded.

Registered voters are eligible to cast ballots by mail only if they have a specific reason they will be out of their county while polls are open on election day, are disabled, are at least 65 years old, have official election responsibilities outside their county, or are scheduled to work during the time polls are open. There are no such restrictions on early in-person voting.

Turnout for midterm elections is historically lower because they lack marquee races for president and governor. Indiana had a 20% turnout during the last midterm in 2018—861,767 voted, and 171,926 voted early or absentee.

In Marion County, just over 95,000 people voted early or absentee out of 142,327 that voted in  the 2020 primary. In the 2018 midterm primary, 7,775 voted early or absentee out of 98,718 total.

As of Thursday evening—just three days into early voting—about 200 Indianapolis residents had voted at the City-County Building, according to Marion County Election Board Deputy Director Brent Stinson. The CCB is the only site currently open, but eight more are set to open in each township starting April 23.

“2020 was bananas. We definitely will not have as many people voting as we did in 2020,” Stinson said, because that was a presidential election year. “The only caveat, I guess, to any of that, is that we’ve never had nine early voting satellite sites, one in each township. I don’t know if that’s going to drive up early voting or if people will just plan to vote on Election Day.”

Hupfer told IBJ in an email that he expects at least early voting numbers to return to historical averages.

“It’s clear that the increase in early voting was a function of the election being held during a global pandemic,” Hupfer said. “Given that life has returned to a sense of normalcy, we would not be surprised if turnout would return to its historical mean as well.”

The Indiana Democratic Party declined an interview with IBJ.

The purpose of the primary is for voters in each political party to select who will be on the ballot in the November election.

Up for election this year are all nine of Indiana’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, one Senate seat currently held by Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young—though neither he nor his Democratic opponent has a primary challenger—and 125 seats in the Indiana Legislature. Challenged races in Marion County are county clerk and recorder.

This primary also follows redistricting of the state legislative and congressional election districts last year. New and redrawn state legislative districts have led to some crowded primary races, such as the new Senate District 46 in Indianapolis where five Democrats are on the ballot, or House District 25 in Boone and Hendricks counties with four Republicans on the ticket.

Indiana’s 9th Congressional District—a seat left open by U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, who is not seeking reelection—also has a crowded race, with nine Republicans and three Democrats running.

Hupfer said the number of competitive races at all levels in this primary will drive voter turnout in his party.

Voter turnout in the 2012 primary election following the last round of redistricting did not increase much. It was at 22%, which is average for Indiana.

The 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index released by the Indiana Bar Foundation, in collaboration with the Indiana Citizen, showed that Indiana’s voter turnout rank fell in the last five years, and the state ranks among the bottom five in the nation.

Moreau said the Indiana Citizen is finalizing a “virtual ballot” that will permit Hoosiers to enter an address, see the names on their ballot, click on a name and find information about that candidate. He added he thinks the organization’s work is “especially valuable this year due to redistricting.”

Hupfer said the Republican Party “believes every election is important” and encourages voters to vote by educating them about where and how to vote. The party also provides resources to campaigns to reach voters.

IBJ’s Leslie Bonilla Muñiz contributed to this report.

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