U.S. Rep. Todd Young

U.S. Rep. Todd Young speaks during an interview in downtown New Albany in this file photo.

INDIANAPOLIS — Jeffrey Embry calls himself a “die-hard Republican” who can’t imagine voting for a Democrat.

But records in his home county indicate otherwise, which may be enough to keep the first-time candidate off the ballot.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” he said.

Embry’s bid for a seat in the state House of Representatives is imperiled by the same laws now threatening Congressman Todd Young’s attempt to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Dan Coats.

The rules were designed almost 50 years ago to give people, instead of party bosses, power to choose candidates. But the stringent requirements routinely snag would-be candidates, including at least 10 whose eligibility for office is being challenged this year.

Among those are challenges to two GOP presidential hopefuls, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, questioning whether they were born as U.S. citizens, as required by the constitution.

Other challenges focus on the procedure of getting on the ballot.

Questions about the candidates will go to the state Election Commission. Two Democrats and two Republicans are set to meet Friday to hear arguments for why those candidates’ names should remain on, or be pulled off, May’s primary ballots.

For Young, the challenge is about numbers.

The state Democratic Party and his potential primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, say the third-term Republican fell short of collecting enough signatures from registered voters to qualify.

Young’s campaign insists he has enough names, and calls the challenge a “petty” attempt to disenfranchise voters.

For Embry, the dispute is over his voting record.

A political novice, the New Castle resident decided to run for office when friends urged him to act on complaints that government doesn’t work for the common man. To get on the ballot, would-be candidates must declare that the last time they voted in a primary they did so in the election for the party they hope to represent.

Embry — running as a Republican in District 54 against GOP incumbent Rep. Tom Saunders of Lewisville — claimed he did. Records from the Henry County clerk’s office indicate the last Indiana primary in which he voted was in 2008 — as a Democrat.

A similar challenge was made to the candidacy of another political newcomer, Dan Ball, Batesville, seeking to unseat state Rep. Cindy Ziemke, R-Batesville.

Ball and Embry say they are now unsure of how they’ve voted in the past. But both consider themselves loyal Republicans.

“I just know I’d lose a lot of sleep knowing I ever voted as a Democrat,” Embry said.

Both are contending with laws that retired Ball State University political scientist Ray Scheele says are some of the toughest in the country. They date to a battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1968, he said, at a time when statewide candidates were chosen by party conventions.

Big-city Republicans that year wanted Ed Whitcomb, while rural Republicans wanted Otis Bowen for governor. Scheele said some arm-twisting guaranteed a win for Whitcomb, who died this week at age 98.

But Bowen got his revenge, Scheele said. Four years after his failed bid, he was tapped by party leaders to run and won. He then convinced the General Assembly to change the rules.

No longer would parties pick candidates for governor, president or U.S. Senate. Instead, voters would decide.

But, to be eligible, candidates needed 500 signatures of registered voters in each of the state’s congressional districts. Indiana now has nine districts.

“Bowen thought it was time to move it out of the bosses’ control,” Scheele said. “And he got what he wanted. He liked to say he was the beneficiary of political dirty tricks.”

He only got part of what he wanted. Some elections, including those for state treasurer and attorney general, remain in party control. Later built into the law was a requirement that candidates swear their party affiliation by declaring how they’d voted in the last primary.

Former Secretary of State Ed Simcox, a longtime Republican leader, says there are reasons for the rules.

Signatures are meant to ensure a candidate is viable, with enough support to mount a successful campaign. The loyalty pledge keeps the opposite party from sneaking in a stealth candidate.

“Primaries are for the parties,” he said. “It’s in the party leadership’s interest to preserve the integrity of the ballot.”

The rules have been controversial, however.

In 2012, Republican Jim Wallace, who wanted to run against now-Gov. Mike Pence, was removed from the ballot by the Election Board for not having enough signatures. But, in the same year, presidential candidate Rick Santorum beat back a similar challenge. He successfully argued that some signatures, which weren’t certified, should have been counted. Young is expected to make a similar argument.

A candidate like Embry may have some precedent to support him.

When Sue Ellspermann, now lieutenant governor, first ran for a seat in the General Assembly in 2010, she declared that she’d voted Republican in the past primary.

Turns out, she didn’t.

Ellspermann argued that she’d made a mistake on her filing form, and she admitted that she’d voted in the 2008 Democratic primary.

She stayed on the Republican ballot, but only after a costly legal fight that went all the way to the state Court of Appeals.

Candidates for state office have complained for years that Indiana sets the bar too high. Candidates elsewhere pay filing fees, or submit much fewer signatures.

Late this week — in response to the unfolding dispute over Young’s candidacy — stater Rep. Jeff Ellington, R-Bloomington, told reporters he would propose easing the rules next session.

“The signature law was designed years ago by both parties to create hurdles for candidates,” he said. “Even those in the two major parties, many of them are legitimate contenders.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com

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