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KEVIN LEININGER: Safety and civics set to collide at the ballot box

A voter in Wisconsin last week spoke for many, and Allen County election officials are studying how to conduct the June 5 primary in the age of COVID-19. (AP photo)
Tim Pape
Tom Hardin
Beth Dlug (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, Wisconsin voters went to the polls last week after the state and U.S. supreme courts overturned Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ last-minute attempt to delay the vote. The result, according to media accounts, was chaotic: People who voted in person, many wearing masks, endured long lines because of social distancing and a reduced number of polling locations. And the unprecedented request for 1.2 million mail-in ballots overwhelmed both local clerks and the ability to deliver a ballot to everyone who wanted one.

“What happened in Wisconsin could be a driver for a true crisis of democracy come November, and every state needs to be thinking right now about what they’re going to do to ensure free and fair elections,” David Daley, senior fellow at Fair Vote, told USA Today.

Indiana has already delayed its scheduled May 5 primary until June 2, by which time the threat of COVID-19 and efforts to control its spread should have eased even if, as some fear, the virus returns later in the year. Then again, it’s hard to say for sure — which is why Allen County Election Board has invited county Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan to weigh in during its next meeting, which Hardin said will be Monday or Tuesday.

McMahan, who has called COVID-19 three times as infectious as traditional flu, said this week she believes both in-person and mail-in voting should be available so long as poll workers wear protective equipment and enforce social distancing. But she is also fearful the premature lifting of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s shelter in place order could be a “recipe for disaster for transmission.”

To prevent that, the Election Board is mailing 150,000 post cards that promote the use of mail-in ballots and explain how to get one. More than 6,000 ballots have already been requested, according to Director of Elections Beth Dlug — already twice the total requested four years ago with nearly two months to go before Election Day. “The board’s position is that we hope everybody takes advantage of voting by mail,” said Chairman and Republican member Tom Hardin, who is also County GOP Chairman Steve Shine’s law partner.

But hoping isn’t enough, insists attorney and former City Councilman Tim Pape, the board’s Democratic member. Although Pape believes it could be possible to send actual ballots to all 250,000 registered voters, he’d settle for a commitment to send ballot applications to all voters even without a specific request, coupled with a well-funded advertising blitz that would dwarf the post cards.

Pape isn’t suggesting an end to in-person voting until the pandemic is over but called board’s response to it “the most important decision in my 20 years of public service. The virus is the enemy, and we will defeat it by staying distant. Things are evolving, and we need to be prepared to do so, too. The sooner we make the decisions, the sooner we can get data (about what works).”

Hardin said he doesn’t think it would be legal to mail everyone an actual ballot. And mailing an application to everyone wouldn’t be practical either, because usage would be relatively low and such a plan would provide duplicates of ballots already sent. It costs the county about $4.50 to provide one mail-in ballot, Dlug said.

But Pape and Hardin do agree on one key point: Despite concerns expressed by Donald Trump and others, they say mail-in ballots are not especially susceptible to fraud despite the lack of identification required when voting in person. “We’ve done it for how many years? And we have a process to check validity,” Pape said — a process Dlug said includes verification of signatures.

“All of my family will be voting by mail this year,” Hardin added.

No matter what the Election Board does or does not do, the primary will remain an elusive target for Dlug and her staff. The Indiana Election Commission could offer new guidelines when it meets as soon as Friday, but local election officials must continue to recruit workers (including high school students) despite health concerns that could complicate recruitment. Dlug must also and search for voting places that can accommodate social distancing — large spaces like high school gyms.

In reality, though, a deadline of sorts will arrive even before the primary. Early voting at the Rousseau Center downtown had been scheduled to begin May 5 but could be pushed back to May 26, Hardin said. With the exception of a handful of local races this primary offers minimal drama or potential controversy, making it the ideal time to experiment with the widespread use of mail-in ballots. But whatever their level of use or success, Dlug isn’t advocating large-scale voting by mail once the COVID-19 crisis ends. Whenever that is.

“I’m an advocate of voting in person,” she said.

Good. Elections must be safe, but they must also be as secure and legitimate as possible, in both reality and perception. When it comes to voting, there’s no real substitute for being there.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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