Election Law ‘Slipped By’ GOP Leadership

October 3, 2011

For release Oct. 5 and thereafter (665 words)

If getting people to vote wasn’t hard enough already, a new Indiana law will further stifle democratic spirit on Nov. 8. The measure removes from the ballot municipal candidates who are unopposed.

What’s disturbing is that the idea became law in the first place.

In hindsight, key legislative leaders call it a mistake. “I don’t like it,” said Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, who as House Speaker signed off on an election law package that included the offending language. “It’s terrible public policy.”

He and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, say they’ll fix the law next session.

But that won’t happen in time for Election Day when folks in some parts will show up to vote – and find little to do.

In Johnson County, voters may spend more time parking, walking into a polling site and checking in than they will casting ballots, Clerk Sue Anne Misiniec told the Daily Journal. New Whiteland and Trafalgar won’t hold elections because there are no contested candidates.

In Evansville, voters in First and Fourth wards won’t see their county council candidates listed because they are unopposed. The incumbents – a Republican and a Democrat – wanted to face the voters. But when Vanderburgh County Clerk Susan K. Kirk asked the state election division for permission, she was told the law gave her no option.

In contrast, in Wayne County a judge granted an injunction allowing two unopposed candidates for Richmond city offices to get their names printed.

The Allen County Election Board cited that ruling as precedent when it decided to go ahead and place uncontested candidates on the ballot in New Haven and Fort Wayne. One of the unopposed candidates is New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald, who is running for re-election and wanted voters to have a say.

Across the state, almost nobody seems to like the law except some county clerks, who lobbied for the measure to save money in a time of tight election budgets. The measure does not apply to statewide or federal elections.

“There are savings,” said Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, who authored HB 1242, the election mega-bill. According to the Legislative Services Agency, keeping names off ballots “may save a minimal amount on printing expenses for shorter ballot cards.” In communities where there is no competition, polling places have no need to open, which could save tens of thousands, Richardson said.

State law already specified that unopposed candidates on the ballot in a General Election are automatically elected, she noted.

Even so, doesn’t the public deserve the chance to vote “yes” or to abstain, which can also send a message to an officeholder?

In an index of civic health released last month, Indiana ranked 43rd in the rate of citizens who are registered to vote — 61.2 percent — and 48th in voter turnout at 39.4 percent. It seems lawmakers should be looking for ways to make elections more enticing, not less so.

The dust up over HB 1242 raises two deeper issues that lawmakers might want to tackle next session as well.

The first is the epidemic of unopposed races. It takes work for political parties to recruit candidates for municipal offices, especially in counties where one party dominates. But it’s vitally important for the future of democracy to give voters choices in the General Election. Might lawmakers have creative ideas to encourage citizens to run for office?

Second: Does the legislative process need internal checks to make sure all legislation gets properly debated? A search for newspaper clippings unearthed no coverage of the provision, which did not appear in the introduced version of HB 1242 but was added later as an amendment.

“It slipped by people; it certainly did me,” Senate Leader Long told the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. “It was tucked in a big bill.”

Maybe that’s the problem. The version signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels took up 67 pages and included 31 separate changes in election law. It shouldn’t be so easy to slip something bad by the Senate President and the House Speaker.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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