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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Ind.Courts - "Challenged absentee ballots should be set aside for later review, high court finds"

In the Indianapolis Star today, Jon Murray gives an overview of yesterday's election challenges. Some quotes:

Conflicting court rulings handed down Monday gave Marion County election officials whiplash as they tried to keep up with a legal fight over how to handle absentee ballots challenged at the polls today.

But when the dust cleared, the upshot remained the same: If you've already cast an absentee ballot and your eligibility to vote is challenged today at your precinct, your ballot will be set aside until a bipartisan team can review it later this week.

That was decided by a unanimous decision Monday evening by the Indiana Supreme Court, which sided with the Marion County Republican Party. The ruling brought quick criticism from county Democrats.

It came less than two hours after an Indiana Court of Appeals panel, voting 2-1, issued a stay halting a Circuit Court ruling from taking effect. In its decision, the Supreme Court vacated the stay.

The high court let stand Marion Circuit Judge Theodore Sosin's ruling Friday that the Election Board would violate Indiana law by telling poll workers to decide the merits of absentee challenges immediately.

Instead, Monday's ruling means any ballots that are challenged won't show up in tonight's results but will be added later if they are deemed valid.

A record 93,000 Marion County voters have submitted absentee ballots at early voting centers or by mail -- about 13 percent of all registered voters. * * *

The dispute between the Republicans and the Election Board centers on conflicting readings of Indiana law.

The statute does not fully spell out when absentee challenges should be handled or by whom, but it refers to the provisional voting process used when a walk-in voter's residency or eligibility is challenged.

In concurring opinions, two Supreme Court justices noted the law's murkiness.

"Thus, on the one hand the statute suggests that a challenged vote must be treated as a provisional ballot and counted later if at all, while on the other hand a challenged absentee vote must be counted at the precinct polling place so long as the affidavit shows the voter is a legal voter of the precinct," Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote. "These provisions are at least ambiguous and at most simply irreconcilable."

But most Indiana counties follow the Republicans' interpretation, and Marion County also has in the past.

Rucker cited as compelling an election handbook put out this year by the Indiana secretary of state and the Indiana Election Division. It also advises setting challenged absentee ballots aside to be counted after Election Day.

In a related story today, Maureen Groppe of the Star Washington Bureau reports:
Six months after its primary-day embarrassment, Lake County has taken steps to avoid a repeat of its slow tally, though its ballot counting could still be delayed by the volume of votes and the way absentee votes will be counted.

Lake County election officials say increased staff and more machine counters are some of the changes that will enable them to have 98 percent of the vote counted by 11 p.m. EST today. * * *

Northwest Indiana's Lake County is still the state's only urban county that counts its absentee ballots in a central location. That's slower than counting them at multiple precincts, according to Secretary of State Todd Rokita. * * *

Rokita said he's not going to judge Lake County's decision, because it could have good reason for wanting a central location, one close to the county's bipartisan election board, which can handle any disputes.

"The fact of the matter is, counties have up to 10 days to legally report their results to us," Rokita said. "And I am not going to sacrifice fairness or accuracy for speed."

Lake County's early voting has already generated controversy. The Indiana Court of Appeals stepped in last week to uphold the legality of early-voting sites in three Lake County cities. Republicans had sued to close the sites, saying they violated local election rules and created a risk for voter fraud. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote.

Lake County stumbled into the national spotlight during Indiana's primary when it took far longer to report its vote totals than Indiana's 91 other counties.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 4, 2008 08:30 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions