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House concurs with Senate amendment removing new restrictions on absentee voting, sending HB 1116 to Gov. Holcomb

UPDATE: Stripped by the Senate of its most criticized provisions to discourage absentee voting, House Bill 1116 went to the governor’s desk Monday after the House concurred with the Senate amendment.

A conference committee had been appointed to try to resolve the differences between the House- and Senate-passed version of the bill, but author Timothy Wesco, R-Osceolo, called it for the concurrence vote Monday afternoon.  Legislative leaders have said they hope to wrap up the 2022 session today, leaving little time for most conference committees to conclude their work.

On its Facebook page, Common Cause Indiana provided this update: “House did an about face and concurred late this afternoon with the version that passed out of the Senate. Can’t say we’re out of the woods until sine die but things are looking better … ”

The legislation would also require that small printers to be added to electronic touch-screen voting machines before the 2024 election, moving up the requirement by five years, a change requested by Secretary of State Holli Sullivan.

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UPDATE: An amendment to House Bill 1116 passed in the Senate Elections Committee Monday defused some of the controversy around the bill’s provisions on absentee voting.

Under the amended law, Hoosiers applying for an absentee ballot would no longer have to attest under penalty of perjury that they could not go to a polling place for early voting or on Election Day.

Sen. Greg Walker (above, right), R-Columbus, said his amendment to the bill would maintain the “status quo” in the state’s provisions on absentee voting, adding that the requirements that had been proposed in the legislation were “unenforceable.”

“I don’t see that it provides us any more security or accountability,” Walker said of the provision that his amendment removed. “Rather, I would say it offers some doubt and confusion.”

He noted that in the past, he has supported legislation to remove some of the existing requirements to apply for an absentee ballot.

“I see that technology resolving some of the concerns some may have regarding accuracy and accountability,” Walker said, referring to plans in Marion County to allow voters to electronically track their absentee ballots during processing. “Absentee vote-by-mail is not going to go away. We have those who are expatriates overseas … We just don’t have any other secure means by which to collect their ballot.”

He added that in future sessions, he hoped to propose removing other restrictions on absentee voting to bring about a “no-fault” system.

Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, an advocacy group, said the amendment significantly improved the bill, but expressed concern about a provision that remains, requiring that Hoosiers applying for an absentee ballot online submit their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number; the legislation would enact the requirement into Indiana law but it is already followed procedurally by the office of the Indiana secretary of state.

 “I would like to push back on this notion that somehow the current process of applying online by mail is not secure. I don’t think we have any real evidence of that,” she said. “I remain concerned that requiring the additional information … will cause some people to think twice and choose not to use this route to apply for an absentee ballot.

“Until we really have evidence that there’s a problem, I think we should keep the status quo.”

The legislation would also require that small printers to be added to electronic touch-screen voting machines before the 2024 election, moving up the requirement by five years. An amendment was added Monday to make the 2024 deadline effective only if funding for the machines was provided to counties, a concern raised during the committee meeting by some county clerks.

Because of the funding provision, the legislation must go to the Senate Appropriations Committee before going to the full Senate. If passed, it would return to the House for review of the Senate-passed amendments, and then potentially to a conference committee to reconcile the different versions of the bill.

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EARLIER: Under a bill passed by the Indiana House Monday and now headed to the Senate, Hoosiers would have another restriction on their ability to vote by mail.

House Bill 1116 would require voters requesting a mail-in absentee ballot to swear under penalty of perjury that they are unable to vote in person during the state’s early voting period.

Bill author Rep. Tim Wesco (above), R-Osceola, said the bill was an update to the state’s mail-in voting policy to keep up with the increase in availability of early in-person voting.

“This really encourages people to vote in person with the state ID as much as possible by taking advantage of the 28-day early voting period,” Wesco said.

The bill passed the House 66-28. The multifaceted voting regulation bill’s main point of contention is that it would require Hoosiers requesting a ballot to confirm they will not be able to vote during the state’s early in-person voting period.

House Republicans and Democrats disagreed on the impact of the bill.

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, said the threat of being charged with perjury may lead working families to be unsure what box to check, since they cannot be sure if they can make it to vote in person or not.

“With this bill in place, those who will be most affected are those who can’t check one of those boxes,” Errington said.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, who rarely takes the floor to join the debate on legislation, said that it is no longer “Election Day,” in the state, it is “Election Month.” Because of this, Hoosiers should be able to find time to vote in their schedules.

House Democrats said the new restriction would make it more difficult to vote in a state with already low voter turnout. In the 2021 Civic Health Index, Indiana ranked 46th in the nation for voter turnout with just 61% of eligible voters in the state participating in the 2020 election.

Under current law, Hoosiers must meet specific requirements, such as being over age 65 or being out of town, in order to vote by mail. This bill would require Hoosiers to swear they are unable to make it during the in-person early voting period, either.

Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, cited that more than 60% of Hoosiers voted absentee either by mail or early in-person in 2020, when the state hit the highest rate of voter turnout in its history.

“At a time when Indiana’s voter turnout rate lags abysmally behind the rest of the country, we need to increase voting access, not make it more difficult to legally cast a ballot,” Pfaff said in a press release.

Errington also said the bill ignores that every county has a different early voting period and number of early voting locations, which could make early voting more difficult. Using Delaware County as an example, Errington said the county has just one site for early voting for over 114,0000 residents. Last fall, she said the polling site was moved, an issue that could prevent Hoosiers from voting when they need to appear physically.

The bill has other provisions, including requiring those requesting an absentee ballot to provide identification through a drivers license or Social Security number. It would also speed up the timeline for counties to provide a “voter verifiable paper audit trail” to July 2024 from the original date in December 2029.

This isn’t the first time Indiana voting laws have been debated.

Due to the pandemic in 2020, midterm elections for the state were pushed back and all Hoosiers were able to vote by mail. Then, voting rights groups fought for the state to allow no-excuse absentee voting for the presidential election in November. The efforts failed, with the state continuing to require Hoosiers to check a reason when requesting an absentee ballot.

Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.