Seventh Circuit Refuses to Allow All Indianans to Vote by Mail

Voters cast their ballots in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 5, 2018. (Austen Leake/Tribune-Star via AP)

CHICAGO (CN) — The Seventh Circuit has rejected a lawsuit that sought to give all Indiana voters the right to cast their ballots by mail in the November general election.

The three-judge panel of Republican appointees handed down the decision late Tuesday, finding that the Hoosier State’s mail-in ballot rules do not violate the rights of voters.

“Indiana’s absentee-voting regime does not affect plaintiffs’ right to vote and does not violate the Constitution. In the upcoming election, all Hoosiers, including plaintiffs, can vote on Election Day, or during the early-voting period, at polling places all over Indiana,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Kanne, a Ronald Reagan appointee.

Indiana currently recognizes 11 circumstances that qualify a resident to vote by mail, including being 65 years or older, having a limiting disability or not being able to vote in person on Election Day because of a work schedule.

In April, several voters and the voting rights group Indiana Vote by Mail filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s mail voting rules on two fronts.

First, they argued that the state’s rules are discriminatory because they allow voters 65 and older to vote by mail but exclude anyone younger than that.

The Seventh Circuit did not see this as an issue and viewed the state’s rules as allowing access for specific reasons rather than discriminating against any group, as all registered voters can still vote in person.

“If Indiana’s law granting absentee ballots to elderly voters changed or even disappeared tomorrow, all Hoosiers could vote in person this November, or during Indiana’s twenty-eight day early voting window, just the same,” Kanne wrote.

The lawsuit also claimed that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 3,500 Indiana residents, presents a danger to voters that violates their equal protection rights.

During oral arguments before the Chicago-based appeals court last week, an attorney for the voters argued that the state’s rules forced Indianans to risk their health in order to vote during the pandemic.

“All voters under the age of 65 are required to trade off their rights to health and safety, and the rights of their loved ones and family against the ability to cast a vote in November,” attorney Jed Glickstein said. “Under Indiana’s scheme, that is a tradeoff that no 65-year-old or older voter is required to make.”

However, the judges rejected that argument by finding that the state’s voting rules only have a “modest impact” on residents being able to select their preferred manner of voting.

“We are well aware that the most severe public health crisis of the past century currently ravages our nation and the world. But that reality does not undermine our conclusion—it reinforces it. This court is ill equipped to second guess, let alone override, the rational policy judgments of Indiana’s elected officials ‘on the eve of an election,’” Kanne wrote, citing a Supreme Court ruling in April that struck down an extension to absentee voting in Wisconsin.

Affirming the lower court’s decision, the panel also found that Indiana’s interest in ensuring safe and accurate voting outweighs any burden placed on voters being denied universal mail-in ballots.

“Just as Indiana’s law providing absentee ballots to elderly Hoosiers does not affect plaintiffs’ right to vote, Indiana’s whole absentee-voting scheme does not affect plaintiffs’ right to vote. And they do not make it harder for anyone to cast a ballot—it’s Covid-19 that might affect election-day plans,” the ruling states.

Kanne was joined in the unanimous decision by U.S. Circuit Judges Kenneth Ripple, another Reagan appointee, and Michael Scudder, appointed by President Donald Trump.

The voting rights group that brought the challenge expressed its frustration with the court’s ruling in a statement Wednesday.  

“Indiana Vote by Mail is disappointed in the 7th Circuit’s decision to not extend the option to vote by absentee ballot to all voters in the state, especially during the pandemic,” the group said. “Yesterday’s ruling is the latest in a growing number of federal court decision in which judges have refused to acknowledge the substantial burdens imposed on voters by the pandemic or require the states to make adjustment in state election laws to alleviate those burdens and increase accessibility to the voting process.”

It added, “The opinion blames the pandemic and ignores the fact that the constitution and Indiana’s elected officials may and should protect Hoosiers, instead of endangering them.”

Indiana began early voting on Tuesday and runs through Nov. 3, the day before the election. All registered Indiana voters are eligible to vote early.

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