Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson is accusing Marion County election officials of not being prepared early enough to handle the influx of absentee-ballot applications and says the deadline to submit mail-in ballots won’t be extended despite delays in voters receiving ballots.
Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge sent state officials, including Lawson, a letter on Thursday saying thousands of Marion County voters who planned to vote by mail in Tuesday’s election might not be able to do so because they won’t receive their ballots in time or won’t have their completed ballots returned in time because of delays with the postal service.
The deadline for mail-in ballots to be received by county election officials is noon Tuesday.
In her letter, Eldridge implored the Indiana Election Commission to extend that deadline.
Lawson said on Friday afternoon during Gov. Eric Holcomb’s COVID-19 press briefing that the deadline will not be extended and doing so wouldn’t help Marion County voters.
“Deadlines are there for security and accountability,” Lawson said.
Lawson and Holcomb announced in March—after Holcomb ordered non-essential businesses closed and Hoosiers to largely stay at home—that they would delay Indiana’s primary election from May 5 to June 2. In addition, the Indiana Election Commission voted to offer voting by mail to everyone.
Normally, Indiana voters are required to provide a reason they want to vote absentee, such as being required to work the entire 12 hours polls are open or having a disability. With those restrictions, few Hoosiers have chosen to vote by mail.
But to try to cut down on crowded polling places and therefore stem transmission of the virus, state and local officials have been encouraging voters to cast ballots by mail during the primary. The Indianapolis City-County Council even voted to send a ballot application to every registered voter in Marion County.
In a letter responding to Eldridge on Friday, Lawson accused her of not being prepared early enough for the flood of mail-in ballots. Lawson said the number of requests for absentee ballots indicated as early as April 21 that Marion County would need additional staff to handle the workload.
More than 123,000 voters in Marion County requested a ballot so they could vote by mail. That’s 20 times the number of mail-in ballots voters requested during the 2016 primary election, the last time a presidential race was on the ballot.
Lawson said Eldridge didn’t start to prepare for the extra work until just before the May 21 deadline to request a mail-in ballot.
“Not until after a call with my office, three days before the deadline to request an absentee ballot, did Marion County see fit to shift things into high gear,” Lawson wrote. “Lack of prior planning and preparation are not sufficient reasons to change deadlines.”
Eldridge said in her letter on Thursday that having to process the requests for mail-in ballots coupled with planning for an in-person election “strained our resources to the breaking point.”
But Lawson questioned why Eldridge initially advocated for conducting the election completely by mail and now would complain about the state’s decision to encourage voting by mail.
“This inconsistency is confusing and disappointing,” Lawson wrote in her letter.
Lawson said she offered to help Eldridge during their discussion on May 18 and talked to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett about having city employees help.
“My conversation with the mayor was very productive,” Lawson wrote. “I left that conversation with every confidence he would support Marion County, and based on your letter, he was able to augment your staff by more than 100% in the final days of absentee ballot processing.”
Lawson is encouraging voters who have not received a ballot or who fear their ballot won’t make it back to the Clerk’s Office by the noon deadline on Election Day to go to the polls in person to cast a vote or drop off their mail-in ballots. Marion County will have 22 polling locations open on Tuesday.
“So, they do have options,” Lawson said during Friday’s press conference. “Unfortunately, these are unprecedented times.”
In a statement, Russell Hollis, a spokesman for the Clerk’s’ Office, called Lawson’s decision disappointing and urged her to reconsider “so that voters and candidates can be assured that all ballots are counted.”
He said that in spite of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marion County Election Board was able to mail absentee ballots to the more than 123,000 voters who requested them by one week before the primary election.