Above: House Bill 1334 was passed by the Indiana Senate on April 3, 2023. The bill, which adds identification requirements to absentee ballot applications, was debated by Sen. J.D. Ford D-Indianapolis (left) and Sen. Eric Koch R-Bedford (right) before it was passed in a 36-12 vote. (Photo by Abriana Onyai Herron)
UPDATE: The Indiana House concurred Tuesday (April 11) with the Senate’s amendments to House Bill 1334, which would increase requirements for absentee voters, in a 64-30 vote, sending it to Gov. Holcomb’s desk.
The following report was written for The Indiana Citizen by Indianapolis journalist Abriana Onyai Herron.
April 3, 2023
At 75, Linda Evans is still physically able to vote in person and even plans to work at the polls in the upcoming primary election.
But she says many of her older friends rely on voting by mail with an absentee ballot, and she is concerned about how legislation moving through the Indiana General Assembly could make the process more difficult for them.
“If you don’t get the absentee ballot in people’s hands, they will not vote,” she said. “I think we should be doing things to make it easier, not harder.”
Laws affecting absentee voting and other voting rights are likely to change in the near future as two Republican-backed bills advance through the Indiana General Assembly.
House Bill 1334 – passed Monday by the Senate in a 36-12 vote and now returning to the House for a possible concurrence vote that would send it to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk – adds identification requirements to the absentee voter application while House Bill 1116 provides, among other changes in election law, that anyone convicted of a voter fraud felony spend the next 10 years without voting.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the bills, saying they would disenfranchise Hoosiers. However, the bills have support from Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate who say they want to strengthen election security.
Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, does not support either bill.
“Both of these bills, to me, are the voter suppression bills of this session,” Pryor said. “I cannot support anything that’s going to make it harder for Hoosiers to cast their ballot to vote, whether it’s absentee or in person.”
HB 1334 would require absentee voters to send additional identification to be verified — such as a driver’s license number, a non-driver ID, voter ID number and/or the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Adding identification requirements could be confusing to seniors and prolong the process for out-of-state students and Hoosiers who are in the military, Pryor said. This bill, Pryor added, is “definitely going to disproportionately impact the minority communities in Indianapolis.”
The author of HB 1334, Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, said the current verification process of matching signatures is “subjective” and requiring identification for absentee voters “increases the confidence” in the state’s election process.
“Essentially, what 1334 does is bring up absentee voting by mail to the same standard as voting in person through the relationship of voter ID,” he said in an interview with The Indiana Citizen.
Wesco said the bill will not impact racial minorities in the state, but acknowledges its impact on the senior community because they make up a large portion of absentee voters. Anticipating the bill’s passage, he said he recently met with a seniors group to inform and prepare them for the changes.
Wesco pointed out that the current absentee ballot application already provides the option for voters to enter the last four digits of their Social Security number, and said the bill is just “taking something that was formerly optional and making it required.”
County election boards will only need one number to match, Wesco said, but they are asking for two identification numbers in order to increase the likelihood of a match.
Under the bill, each county election board could delay an absentee voter’s application if the identification used does not match their voter registration identification. If they cannot match identification methods with voter information, they will send another absentee ballot application with an explanation of the error.
“People who are going to vote absentee by mail, it is really important that they submit that application as soon as it opens so that they can complete their ballots and get it sent back,” Wesco said.
Applicants can also send a photocopy of a passport, a driver’s license or any other identification covered under Indiana law. Wesco said absentee voters can deliver the absentee application by hand.
With Monday’s passage in the Senate, HB 1334 will return to the House for either a concurrence vote to agree to Senate-passed amendments, or to be assigned to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions.
Also working its way through the General Assembly, though at a slower pace, is HB 1116, which provides that influencing, obstructing, interfering and/or injuring an election worker will be a Level 6 voter fraud felony. Those convicted would not be able to vote for 10 years in the state.
Julia Vaughn, the executive director at Common Cause Indiana, said the bill is unnecessary and “sets a very bad precedent.”
“Hoosiers are more likely to get struck by lightning than be convicted of voter fraud,” she said.
HB 1116, Vaughn added, just takes Indiana in the wrong direction.
The bill will not only disenfranchise people, but it will also “disproportionately impact the voters of color” because racial minorities are often convicted at higher rates than white people, she said.
Wesco, the author of HB 1116, said the 10 year punishment is to “connect the penalty to the crime.”
“If you commit a serious voter fraud felony, we are saying that we don’t want you anywhere near our elections for a period of 10 years,” Wesco said
It is important for people who commit voter fraud receive proper punishment, Democratic Rep. Pryor said, but the crime rarely happens in Indiana.
“Obviously people who intentionally commit voter fraud, you know, they certainly need to be held accountable, but this is just so open and broad … I think it’s opening up a can of worms,” Pryor said. “We are disenfranchising people for 10 years.”
A redistricting provision in HB 1116 is also unnecessary, Vaughn said.
“HB 1116 provides solutions for problems that don’t exist and has the potential to create chaos in terms of local redistricting,” she said.
For local governments that were unable to complete the decennial redistricting process by Jan. 1, 2023, the bill requires that they must complete the process by May 15, 2023. Otherwise, the office of the Indiana secretary of state may redraw the election district lines.
Wesco said he added this provision at the request of Gary Mayor Jerome Prince after the city had failed to redistrict by the deadline.
Gary has since completed its redistricting due to the pressure of the pending legislation, Wesco said. Vaughn countered that it was because of a lawsuit that was filed against the city because they failed to redistrict in time.
The redistricting component of HB 1116, Pryor said, is going to create a lot of challenges for communities because it is not “well thought out.”
Acknowledging that some of the redistricting provisions of the bill are no longer necessary, Wesco said there has been discussion about taking that language out of the bill altogether.
“But there’s also some discussion about other communities that we are not even aware of that haven’t fully implemented a local redistricting plan,” he said. “Especially this year in relation to city council districts, it’s really important that redistricting happens.”
HB 1116, already passed by the House, is being reviewed by the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee before going to the Senate floor.
As the two bills have been the center of political debate during this legislative session, Pryor said state lawmakers could have used that time to focus on problems like voter turnout rather than inhibiting people from their right to vote.
“The biggest threat that we have right now to our democracy,’’ she said, “is really people who cannot accept the outcome of the elections and not people who want to participate in the democratic process of voting.”
At the Indianapolis senior community where Linda Evans lives, some people get their groceries delivered to them and are just not willing to risk their health to vote in person. Less than half of the senior community votes, Evans said, and she believes that if legislation like HB 1334 becomes law, it will be bad for senior voter turnout in future elections.
“Our government will not work unless everyone is allowed to participate,” she said. “If this bill is weeding out people now, who will they weed out next?”
Abriana Onyai Herron is a 2022 journalism graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She recently was a Report for America corps member and reporter at the Indianapolis Recorder. Her work for The Indiana Citizen Racial Justice Reporting Project is supported through the Herbert Simon Family Foundation.