INDIANAPOLIS (CN) – A federal judge ordered the Indianapolis-area elections board to establish at least two new early voting locations for this fall’s election, finding that Republicans were likely behind an effort to reject early voting locations in Democratic-leaning Marion County.
Common Cause of Indiana, the NAACP and two voters – postal worker John Windle and NAACP member Doris McDougal – sued the Marion County Election Board a year ago, alleging it violated their equal-protection rights by rejecting satellite voting sites that allow them to cast early absentee ballots in person.
The complaint alleged that absentee voting saw a sharp decline after Republican members of the board refused to approve the polling places and that early voters had to rely on a single, inconvenient early voting location at the downtown City-County Building in Indianapolis.
Republicans cited costs and administrative concerns for establishing the two other satellite polling places for early voting. But voters in the county allege the move was a ploy to mask voter suppression and that early voting sites had been set up in counties that lean Republican.
Barack Obama prevailed in the 2008 presidential election, when early voting places proved successful, according to the lawsuit. But in each election after 2009, the Marion County Election Board needed a unanimous vote to approve early voting polling places. In each instance, Republicans on the board refused to back the resolutions.
In a 48-page opinion issued Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Barker ordered the county to open at least two new voting locations for this year’s general election, ruling that the plaintiffs had demonstrated at this stage of proceedings that the early voting locations had been rejected for partisan reasons.
Based on evidence about the resolution for the 2016 election, Barker said it appeared that one Republican, board member Maura Hoff, had “outsourced her decision-making to the Marion County Republican Party” and towed the party line in deciding whether to approve the early voting resolution before the board.
She had also deferred to the party when a local Indianapolis Star journalist asked her to explain why she did not support the fall 2016 resolution.
“The clear inference from these undisputed facts is that nonpartisan reasons did not in fact play any significant role in Hoff’s decision, that Hoff’s decision was effectively the county party’s decision,” Barker wrote in the ruling.
Russell Hollis, a spokesman with the Marion County Clerk’s Office, said the board would comply with the court’s order. He said in a brief phone interview Thursday that Hoff resigned from the board in early 2017. Republican Melissa Thompson replaced her.
“The board looks forward to the continuing work of the bipartisan election and administration planning committee, which is tasked with implementing a new system of vote centers and early voting sites beginning with the 2019 primary election,” Hollis wrote in an emailed statement.
Indiana intervened for the defendants. Bill McCleery, spokesman for Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill, declined to comment on the ruling and said his office is reviewing the court’s decision.
Julia Vaughn of Common Cause Indiana said she was pleased the court recognized there was a “very subtle form of voter suppression” in Marion County.
“We are grateful that Judge Barker recognized that the motivation behind this was political,” Vaughn said in a phone interview. “There weren’t any good reasons to prevent satellite locations from opening. They were wildly successful in 2008, 2009, and perhaps for the Marion County Republican Party, too successful in terms of making valid access easy and convenient in the state’s largest and most diverse county.”
In 2008, 370,839 Marion County voters cast ballots and 72,543 of these were early in-person voters. Eight years later, 366,653 Marion County voters cast ballots, about 4,000 fewer votes than in the 2008 election, according to court records. Just 46,986 of people who cast votes were early in-person voters, representing a 34.5 percent decline.
Judge Barker said that while the evidence did not paint a clear picture of reasons why the board had rejected the satellite locations in elections before 2016, the record before the court “permits only one conclusion: partisanship motivated, and indeed was the but-for cause of, the board’s action.”
By creating the new early voting locations, the public will “reap the harvest of an electoral contest conducted without a governmental thumb on the scale,” Barker added.
However, the judge stopped short of ordering the elections board to establish the satellite locations in time for next month’s primary election because of time constraints.
Jim Merritt, chair of the Marion County Republican Party, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.