Indiana’s first Election Day after pandemic-related complications comes Tuesday, and a few hotly contested primary races are in the spotlight.
At the state level, five Democrats are in a heated race for a new state Senate seat representing Indianapolis. In Congress, nine Republicans have crowded the field for the vacant 9th District seat in southern Indiana.
In Marion County, a contested Democratic race for county clerk is being fueled by an intraparty feud, while Hamilton County features a high-profile race for prosecutor.
Election officials in Indianapolis are preparing for a return-to-normal Election Day as the pandemic eases.
During the last primary election amid the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the county was deluged by thousands of mail-in ballots to count by hand. Results from Indianapolis took days to complete.
Mail-in ballots won’t come anywhere close to that level this year. Still, mail-in voting appears more popular this spring than it did before the pandemic, Marion County Director of Elections Brienne Delaney said.
Marion County had received more than 3,200 mailed ballots as of April 22. That’s nearly double the number at the same point of the election cycle in the 2018 midterm primary, Delaney said.
In response to health concerns in 2020, 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 the more than 1 million Hoosiers who voted in the 2020 primary. Two-thirds of Indianapolis voters—about 95,000 out of 142,000—voted by mail or early in that primary.
This year, Indiana returned to its traditional restrictions on mail-in absentee voting, but many of those who are still eligible apparently decided they preferred voting by mail, Delaney said.
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.
“I do think it will become more normal. That’s my prediction,” Delaney said. “We had so many folks that voted by mail [in 2020], they had to learn how to do it. And so now they like it.”
Indianapolis election officials can be more efficient when counting mailed ballots this year. The county spent $1.4 million on a new machine to process the ballots.
Before this year, Marion County’s absentee ballots have always been assembled, sent and processed by hand—which required an army of temporary workers, Delaney said.
The new system adds an “intelligent bar code” to every absentee envelope, so election officials can better track individual ballots through the mail and when they arrive back at the Clerk’s Office.
“It should help eliminate a lot of the human error by using automation to do that,” she said.
Rare contested primaries
Crowded primaries in Indianapolis can be rare because both Democrats and Republicans had long held endorsement conventions, also called “slating,” where the party selects a candidate to support in the primary.
Slating, however, has lost its glow in recent years. The Marion County Republican Party chose to not slate candidates this year. And the Marion County Democratic Party’s endorsements have lost the traditional effect of persuading challengers to drop their campaigns.
Five Democrats are vying for the new Senate District 46 seat that would represent downtown Indianapolis, as well as the neighborhoods of Fountain Square and Irvington.
Kristin Jones, an Indianapolis city-county councilor, is the party’s endorsed candidate. But that hasn’t stopped other Democrats from running against her at full force.
Her major challengers are Ashley Eason, a former not-for-profit executive; Andrea Hunley, a principal at Indianapolis Public Schools; and Karla Lopez-Owens, community outreach director for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. Also joining the field is Bobby Kern, a paralegal and perennial office-seeker.
The crowded field arises from a rift within the Marion County Democratic Party that is also playing a leading role in the county clerk’s race.
Marion County Democratic Party Chair and Recorder Kate Sweeney Bell is facing former state senator and county auditor Billie Breaux.
Bell is the party’s endorsed candidate. Breaux, meanwhile, is among candidates for several offices who didn’t participate in slating.
And in another Marion County contested Democratic primary, Bell’s second-in-command, Chief Deputy Recorder Chris Becker, is running against Faith James Kimbrough for the role of recorder.
Other Statehouse races
This year, 125 of the 150 seats in the Indiana House and Senate are up for election.
In the aftermath of the GOP-led redistricting from the Legislature last year, several redrawn districts are without incumbent lawmakers and others include new challengers.
House District 25, a new seat in Hendricks and Boone counties, has four Republicans eyeing the spot.
In the running are Kent Abernathy, Becky Cash, Douglas Rapp and Matt Whetstone, who is a former state lawmaker and casino lobbyist.
House District 32, a new district in northern Marion County and Hamilton County that includes Carmel and Fishers, has three Republicans in its primary: Fred Glynn of Carmel, Suzanne Jaworowski of Fishers—who dropped out of the crowded state treasurer race to run for this seat—and Paul Nix of Fishers.
In Johnson County, incumbent Rep. John Young, R-Franklin, has three primary challengers in his House district that was redrawn to include a portion of Shelby County. Republicans Luke Campbell, Robb Greene and Scott Strother are looking to win the party nomination over Young.
On the south side of Indianapolis, conservative Republican Rep. John Jacob faces a primary challenger in his redrawn House District 93—Julie McGuire, who is from the University Heights neighborhood.
Nine Republican hopefuls want to fill a vacant seat in the 9th Congressional District.
They include former state Sen. Erin Houchin of Salem, business consultant Stu Barnes-Israel of Greensburg, and trucking company owner and former congressman Mike Sodrel.
The six other candidates are commercial real estate broker Jim Baker, pastor Brian Tibbs, state Rep. J. Michael Davisson, U.S. Army veteran Dan Heiwig, economics professor Eric Schansberg and Bill Thomas, who unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 2016.
Seven Republicans, including Jennifer-Ruth Green and Blair Milo, are in another crowded race in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District for a chance to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Frank J. Mrvan in November.
Of Indiana’s eight congressional delegates running for reelection, only Mrvan, Reps. André Carson and Greg Pence face challengers in their respective primaries. The other five are unopposed.
The high-profile race in Hamilton County is for prosecutor, where the incumbent is seeking a fourth term against a former radio talk show host supported by former Vice President Mike Pence.
Earlier this month, Pence held a high-priced fundraiser for his friend Greg Garrison, with the priciest tickets selling for $5,000 a pop. Garrison is trying to unseat current Prosecutor D. Lee Buckingham.
Two seats for the Hamilton County Council also are being contested in the Republican primary.
John Accetturo will face Tim Griffin in the race to represent District 1, which encompasses most of Carmel and the western edge of Fishers.
In District 3—which includes Noblesville, Jackson and White River townships—incumbent Steve Schwartz is opposed by his 2018 Republican primary opponent, Mark Hall.•