Indiana Lawmakers Battle Over Election, Voter ID Regulations

A bill that would have required voter identification when applying for mail-in ballots has been revised to just online applications. The bill’s author is adamant about the role ID would have in tightening election security.

(TNS) — A Republican-authored Senate bill that adds identification requirements to vote by mail and limits who can alter how elections are held will head to the House floor for a full vote, but with significant changes.

Two of the bill's provisions — which would have prevented the election commission and governor from ever expanding vote-by-mail or changing the time, place or manner of an election — were removed entirely by a bi-partisan vote.

And the bill's requirements that voters provide an identification number when applying for an absentee ballot now only applies to online applications.

Senate Bill 353 comes a year after Gov. Eric Holcomb and the bipartisan Indiana Election Commission moved the 2020 primary from May 5 to June 2 due to the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. The commission also unanimously agreed to eliminate eligibility requirements to vote by mail in the primary, opening the option up to all voters. Bill author Sen. Erin Houchin, R- Salem, doesn't want that to happen again, at least not at the hands of any executive. Instead, she and supporters say the General Assembly should be the only body authorized to make statewide changes to elections.

"It is our responsibility to make those changes," Houchin said during a hearing in front of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee on Tuesday.

Houchin and supporters of the bill said it would tighten election security and combat distrust in the voting process. It would also bring absentee voting requirements more in line with existing voter ID laws in Indiana.

IndyStar has reached out to Houchin regarding the latest changes to SB 353.

Critics of the bill said it perpetuates a narrative that the 2020 election was flawed or illegitimate, and that adding an ID requirement could unfairly lead to rejected absentee applications.

An 'Important Part' of Voting

SB 353 was debated in committee for nearly two-and-half hours Tuesday, with much of the discussion focused on the proposed ID requirement.

In Indiana, voters must apply to vote-by-mail before each election and must have one of 11 excuses to be eligible. Under current law, no ID is required when applying to vote-by-mail. Instead, election workers match the signature application with the signature on the voter's registration. The actual ballot is also verified through signature matching.

Indiana voters must have a valid ID to vote in person.

"We're really just trying to increase voter security," Houchin said Tuesday. She added that absentee-by-mail is "an important part of our voting process, especially when we saw that the absentee ballot application process and people voting by absentee did increase dramatically over the last election cycle."

Over 550,000 voted absentee in the 2020 primary, the majority of those by mail. In the 2016 primary, just over 53,000 people voted by mail, according to IndyStar archives.

Attorney General Todd Rokita, a Republican and former Secretary of State who helped craft Indiana's existing voter ID laws, called SB 353's ID requirement a "common sense" measure that would "further protect Indiana's elections from voter fraud."

But Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, and other critics noted there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Indiana in 2020. Vaughn was one of 10 people to testify against the bill earlier this week.

"There's simply no good reason to put this burden in place," she said. Even with the bill amended, Vaughn told IndyStar, "what remains is still concerning."

Vaughn said she fears SB 353 would result in voters' absentee applications being rejected through no fault of their own.

The bill would require voters to include either their driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, which would be verified against the person's voter registration. But those numbers aren't required to register to vote.

If a voter includes either ID number to apply to vote absentee, but that number doesn't exist in their registration file, the application could be denied. And for voters who have one of those numbers listed, Vaughn said it's a guessing game as to which one.

Houchin said voters whose applications are denied will be notified and can go through a remedy process outlined in state statute, but that statute only applies to service members and overseas voters. House Elections and Apportionment Committee Chair Rep. Timothy Wesco, R- Osceola, said there's pending legislation that would open up the notification and remedy process to the general population.

Wesco said the "scaled-back" version of SB 353 gives election administrators a new tool to combat the "threat of security breaches that are inherent to the anonymous nature of the internet.

"Our election laws and practices need to advance as technology advances," Wesco said in a statement. "And I believe this policy is a balanced approach that passed out of committee with bipartisan support."

'The Ones Most Accountable'

Rokita said "last minute rule and law changes by people not authorized to do so" ahead of the 2020 election "created a profound unease, if not outright distrust about the results," including in Indiana.

Rokita told committee members they should make any decisions impacting an election "because you are the ones closest to the people, not the Indiana Election Commission."

"You are the ones most accountable," he said.

But when Holcomb signed an executive order changing the date of the 2020 primary, he had the support of then-Secretary of State Connie Lawson and the leaders of the Indiana Republican and Democratic parties.

"As citizens we all have a right to elect our leaders in a free and open and, of course, a safe environment," Holcomb said at the time. "It's one of the cornerstones of this great nation, and so it stands to reason that rescheduling such an election should only be done in a time of emergency."

Angela Nussmeyer, the Democratic co-director of the Indiana Election Division, testified against the bill Tuesday. She was speaking for herself and not on behalf of the division.

Nussmeyer said SB 353 "would greatly reduce the ability of the state to respond quickly and fluidly during emergencies and crises," adding that election boards were scrambling ahead of the primary to figure out how to safely pull off the election given a lack of personal protective equipment and volunteer poll workers.

"This flexibility in decision making was crucial to a well-balanced and managed response," Nussmeyer said. "And those decisions were and are best handled by those with first hand knowledge of the impacts of this crisis on elections."

Nussmeyer, again speaking for herself, told IndyStar on Thursday that she appreciates the latest amendments to the bill.

"In my view, the bi-partisan Indiana Election Commission exercised their powers given to them by the Indiana General Assembly to nimbly respond to an evolving situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic last spring," she said.

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