INDIANA — Voters casting straight-party ballots in this November’s general election will have an added step not seen before, and some election officials are concerned the changes will present unnecessary challenges.
In March, Indiana Public Law 21-2016 went into effect, after Indiana Senate Enrolled Act 61 passed this year’s legislative session and was signed into law by Gov. Pence. The main crux of the bill states that straight-party tickets no longer count for partisan races in which more than one candidate can be chosen, specifically at-large races.
Prior to the new law, voters could select their straight party choice in the beginning of the ballot, and this would in effect cast a vote for all candidates in that party without any extra steps, if no other candidates were chosen separately. In this election, they will have to manually select any at-large candidates for whom they wish to vote.
Indiana Republican Sen. Greg Walker, who authored the bill with Republican Sen. Randall Head, said the main goal was to take away unclear logic in Indiana code that caused complications in interpreting ballots where a voter marked straight party, but strayed from that in at-large sections.
“In an attempt to make the vote true and accurate, we had to deal with the error in the logic as it was in the code,” Walker said. “If someone votes a straight ticket, let’s say they vote Democrat and then they mark a single Democrat county at-large candidate, did they intend to vote (only) for that one candidate, or are they trying to vote four times if there were four Democrats on the ballot?”
This can also apply when a voter casts a straight Democrat ticket, then chooses one Republican, for instance, in the at-large race and makes no other marks.
“Do they want to vote for two of the Democrat candidates, and how would you know which two of those three to include?” Walker said. “The complexity is greatly reduced (with this law.) I think if anything, going forward, there will be fewer opportunities for challenge than more.”
WILL VOTERS UNDERSTAND?
Some election officials have concerns that the new system will be confusing to some voters, especially those who have used straight-party tickets for years and won’t expect to make additional choices on the ballot.
Angie Nussmeyer, co-director of the Indiana Election Division, said she believes that section of the bill unfairly penalizes people who appropriately use straight-party voting.
“They may be expecting a different outcome,” she said. “After walking away and casting their ballot, they may not realize that without making individual marks in the at-large race, that they have, in effect, not voted for anyone (in that section) if they used the straight-party device.
“I have a real concern about longtime voters who [will be] caught unaware of the change.”
Those with concerns agree that doing everything possible to educate voters is the best defense. Nussmeyer said they have been working with county clerks and voting machine vendors since March to work with the changes.
“The bill puts challenges not just on the vendors to make changes to their systems in a compressed timeline, but it also puts a strain on the county election administrators and poll workers who have to learn a new set of rules, which some would argue are already pretty darn complicated,” she said.
Tom Galligan, Clark County Democratic Party chair, said he believes the bill may do more harm than good.
“It’s a small thing,” he said. “I don’t think it will fix much of anything. I think they’re tying to fix something that’s not really much of a problem, but they think it is.
He said as a result, there may be fewer votes in at-large races because people won’t know.
“There will be shortages on the at-large, because people don’t realize,” he said.
EDUCATING THE VOTERS
Galligan, as well as Clark County Republican Party Treasurer Matt Owen, said the parties are working on ways to make sure voters understand how the straight-party ballots will work this election, including stressing to candidates — often on the front lines — the need to inform their potential voters of the change.
“I think there’s definitely a learning curve that candidates are going to have to get the voters around,” Owen said. “Staunch Republicans or staunch Democrats are used to going into the voting booth and marking one line and that counts for whichever party that may be.”
He agrees that this could negatively impact at-large vote totals across the board, and said it adds more confusion to an already confusing process when it comes to at-large races.
“One of the issues that we’ve seen in the past is that when you mark at-large races differently that your straight-party ticket voting, what does that mean? I’ve sat in court where that’s been argued and nobody seemed to know in the past what it meant or how machines were even programmed to read those changes,” Owen said.
“I’m sure that it clarifies what the correct procedure is in counting the votes,” he said, “but I don’t know if it corrects or helps the voter.”
Galligan and Owen both said this new system is already changing the way at-large campaigning works, too.
“When you look at your voter base, you know there are certain blocks of voters who are going to vote straight ticket no matter what,” Owen said.
Now, he said, there’s no way to count on those votes and candidates will need to be more active in reaching all voters.
“It’s going to require a lot more direct contact with a lot more of the voter base, which might not be a bad thing,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s going to make the process, I think, more difficult.”
Clark County Clerk Susan Popp said her office intends to do everything possible to alert voters to the change. There will be information on the actual ballot, which is required by the law, but they will also spread the word through voters’ calls and emails they answer.
There will also be information posted at the polls and in Voter Registration, where people come in for early or absentee voting.
Her biggest concern, though, is reaching voters who get mailed absentee ballots. To help with this, they plan to include information in the packet that stands out, like on bright paper alerting voters that this information is new.
“When we send out the absentee ballots, we’re going to make it a different color paper to distinguish that straight party tickets do not count in these races,” she said.
She said that since there is more of a balance between the number of Democratic and Republican voters than in recent years, she doesn’t see that it will affect one party more than the other.
“If this would have happened before, when there were more straight-party tickets for one or the other, it would have affected them,” she said.
She said over-votes have not been a huge issue in the county.
“We really didn’t have than many because let’s say I voted a straight Democrat ticket and then voted for one of the Republicans, it would just register the vote,” she said. “Only the other candidate (Republican) would get the vote.”
In Floyd County, Clerk Christy Eurton said her big concern is also mailed absentees, which are the only paper ballots they use. In their system, which uses electronic voting centers for in-person voting, the computers go through a screen-by-screen review of the voter’s electronic ballot.
“Some people don’t like it, they think it’s time consuming,” she said. “But it’s cases like this where it forces you to review your ballot on who you picked and who you didn’t pick.
“It allows you to under-vote; it lights up and is like ‘Are you sure this is what you want?’”
The paper ballots are mailed out and only opened at noon on election day, so there’s no chance for review of this kind, Eurton said.
Owen said if the purpose of the bill was to clarify voter intent, he feels that the best way to do that would have been to move away from straight-party voting in the first place.
“I would much rather have seen the elimination of straight-party voting rather than adding a step to achieve a straight ticket,” he said.
“Having a straight-party vote total at the end of the night is a good indication of where we are in different communities or as a state when you see Republicans match up to Democrats, but it’s not worth having that statistic if it is going to interfere with the intent of the voter.”