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Committee passes elections bill but removes provisions limiting absentee voting and governor’s powers

Follow our legislative coverage at The Indiana Citizen, in partnership with TheStatehouseFile.com

UPDATE: An elections bill that drew sharp criticism for provisions limiting absentee voting and weakening the governor’s authority to reschedule an election was heavily amended in a House Elections and Apportionment Committee meeting Thursday, leaving virtually none of the controversial provisions intact.

Senate Bill 353 had been likened to Georgia legislation that drew corporate criticism and led to Major League Baseball pulling this year’s All Star Game from Atlanta. The similiarities were largely limited to a provision involving absentee voting applications which would have required any applicant to provide either a drivers license number or the last four digits of their social security number.

An amendment from Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, was approved by the committee to limit that requirement to online applications, a change that Pfaff said would deal with instances where someone could apply for an absentee ballot in another person’s name without their knowledge.

The committee chairman, Rep. Timothy Wesco (above),  R-Osceola, then followed with another amendment that essentially gutted the remainder of the bill, removing provisions that would have limited the authority of the governor or the Indiana Election Commission to change “the time, manner or place of holding an election” or to expand absentee voting, as Gov. Eric Holcomb authorized amid the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

“Essentially this leaves Rep. Pfaff’s amendment as the bill,” Wesco said. The amended bill passed the committee, 8-3.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, also attempted to amend the bill to include provisions for changes in the General Assembly’s redistricting process, by which the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency would be responsible for redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts after the decennial census. Wesco ruled the amendment out of order without explanation and it was not put up for a committee vote. Pierce revived the attempt later Thursday in a session of the full House through a parliamentary move to introduce a “minority report” from the Elections Committee, but was again unsuccessful.

Pierce, who had attempted to insert similar language into another elections bill earlier in the legislative session, was among those voting against SB 353 in committee, saying it was in protest of the redistricting amendment not being included although he thought the bill was a better one due to the other amendments adopted.

Republicans on the committee expressed disappointment at the amendment maintaining the governor’s authority, but said they would support the bill in hopes of bringing it to the House floor, where it could be amended again.

“If there are emergencies, I still think it is important for the legislature to be the primary driver of those policies,” said Rep. Ethan Manning, R-Logansport. 

The bill had been scheduled for a vote on Tuesday according to the committee agenda, but the vote was postponed after more than two hours of testimony largely in opposition to the bill, including criticism of the absentee voting provisions from an Eli Lilly and Co. official.

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EARLIER: An elections bill with a provision likened to controversial legislation in Georgia stalled briefly April 6 in a House committee after more than two hours of testimony largely in opposition to it.

Senate Bill 353 authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, is now scheduled for possible amendments and a vote by the House Elections and Apportionment Committee on Thursday.

The bill would limit the governor’s authority to reschedule elections or expand absentee voting and would require additional documentation for any absentee-voter application. In support of the latter provision — similar to one in the recently passed Georgia Senate Bill 202,  requiring the applicant to provide either a drivers license number or the last four digits of their social security number — Houchin told the committee that a constitutent had alerted her to an instance where someone applied for an absentee ballot only to learn that someone else had already done so, without their knowledge, in their name.

Following Houchin’s introduction of the bill, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita also testified in support of it, saying additional security measures were needed to remedy what he contended has been a loss of public confidence in the election process.

But subsequent testimony followed from eight others — all but one in opposition to the bill, and including Eli Lilly and Co. vice president Steven Fry who said his employer believes that the legislation is a “solution in search of a problem” and “only serves to perpetuate the narrative that the outcome of the 2020 election was flawed or compromised.”

At the end of public testimony, committee vice chairman Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, said the bill would not be put up for a committee vote Tuesday, although the committee agenda had indicated that it would. Morrison is acting in place of committee chairman Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, who is the House sponsor of the bill.

Thursday is the deadline for committee action on all bills in the General Assembly this year.

After Morrison’s announcement, Houchin took note of the Lilly official’s testimony in her closing remarks to the committee, and included an apparent reference to the widespread corporate criticism that followed the passage of the Georgia bill.

“I do appreciate them coming in advance,” she said, referring to Lilly, “rather than just yelling afterward.”

Much of the public testimony, which included four election workers at the state or county level, centered on the complexity of verifying the additional information that would be required in applying for an absentee ballot. For example, individual registration records might include either a voter’s drivers license number, social security number or a separate “credential” number but not necessarily all three — and if the applicant submitted their drivers license number but had only the “credential” number on file, then that application could be rejected.

To that criticism, Houchin replied that state election law includes a “curing” process by which election workers would alert applicants to such problems and allow them to correct them.

But such problems are further complicated by the delays in communicating with applicants, said an election worker who travelled from northwest Indiana to testify.

“When we reject something, we send a letter,” said Michelle Fajman, director of the Lake County Board of Elections. “By the time that reaches a voter, it’s likely they’re going to be disenfranchised.”

The lone public testimony in support of the bill came from the same Lake County election office. LeAnn Angerman, who works with Fajman as assistant director, said the additional documentation would provide needed safeguards against fraudulent absentee voting.

“We love voter turnout,” Angerman said. “But I believe the state has a legitimate interest in promoting election integrity and security.”

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EARLIER: In 2020, Gov. Eric Holcomb delayed the primary election from May until June and loosened restrictions on absentee voting as Indiana coped with the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Under legislation proposed a year later, he wouldn’t be able to do either. 

Senate Bill 353 authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, would limit the authority to change the “time, place or manner of holding an election’’—including the authority to loosen requirements for absentee voting—to the General Assembly. Currently, the requirement to obtain an absentee ballot is to fill out an application and to meet certain criteria such as poor health or being out of the voting precinct at the time of the election. 

The legislation is being considered as Georgia is seeing the fallout from a controversial election bill. While the bills have significant differences—for example, Indiana’s does not include the provision that voters cannot be offered food or water while waiting in line at the polls—both require additional documentation when applying for an absentee ballot. 

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes Houchin’s bill, which since its introduction has been amended to require a driver’s license number or the last four digits of one’s Social Security number when applying for an absentee ballot. 

“SB 353 would disenfranchise tens of thousands of Hoosier voters by requiring additional, costly, and unnecessary documentation,” Katie Blair, public policy and advocacy director, said in a statement. “It is especially appalling that following a general election fraught with voter hurdles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indiana legislators are focused on making it even more difficult for Hoosiers to cast a ballot.”

The bill,  set to be heard Tuesday morning in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, was passed by the Senate in February. In presenting the amended bill to the Senate, Houchin said it would ensure that the legislative branch of government had a voice in the conduct of elections. 

“It gives the General Assembly the opportunity to weigh in, in an emergency,” said Houchin.  “The point of the bill is that we won’t have what we had across the country. We will not see courts and statewide elected officials and others who are not the General Assembly making changes to the time, manner and process by which we vote.’’

During the Senate debate, Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, noted the new limits that the bill would place on voting, saying, “We should want 100% of the people to vote so we should make it easy.”

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EARLIER: A bill to prohibit the Indiana Election Commission and the governor from altering the times and dates of elections passed the Senate Feb. 22.

Senate Bill 353, authored by Senator Erin Houchin, R-Salem, advanced to the House in a 34-15 vote. It would give only the Indiana General Assembly authority to change the timing and procedures of elections.

 

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An Indiana Senate bill that would have set new requirements for voting has been amended instead to give the Indiana General Assembly sole authority to reschedule elections and expand absentee voting as Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Election Commission did with the Indiana primary in 2020.

Both the Senate Elections and Rules and Legislative Procedures committees on Feb. 15 approved the amended Senate Bill 353, sending it to the full Senate for review.

As introduced in in January by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, the bill would have required an individual to show proof of citizenship to register to vote as well as post-election “risk-limiting audits.’’

That language was removed by the committee and replaced with the provision that only the state legislature could set the “time, place or manner” of an election. The amended bill also states that the governor does not have the power “to institute, increase, or expand vote by mail or absentee vote by mail,” limiting that authority to the Indiana General Assembly as well.

Amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Holcomb issued an executive order changing the date of the primary election from May 5 to June 2 and to allow no-excuse absentee voting. The Indiana Election Commission later voted to make the change as well, although no-excuse absentee voting was not allowed in the general election. — The Indiana Citizen

Alexa Shrake contributed reporting. She is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

John Krull Commentary: Georgia on our minds, new version of an old tune