‘Everything’s on the table’: Election Board holds emergency planning meeting

At this rate, anything could happen.

The Johnson County Election Board is scrambling to prepare for a variety of possibilities. The three-member board met Tuesday to discuss the upcoming primary election, which is less than two months out, and how they would manage potential changes to the way people are encouraged or required to vote, given the current public health emergency.

For now, county clerk Trena McLaughlin is strongly encouraging voters to vote by mail to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, which was recently declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. But that could change in the coming days and weeks, board members agreed.

Any major changes to the upcoming election will need to come from the top down, the board said. State — and, to a lesser extent, federal — governments make major decisions, including postponing a primary, as some other states have done. Right now, it is the job of local election officials to essentially prepare for the unknown, said Phil Barrow, election board member.

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Steve Huddleston, election board attorney, presented the board with several hypotheticals to consider.

"We have a location issue, and we have a people issue," Huddleston said.

It is unclear how many of the county’s 22 vote centers will allow voters to enter their facilities during early voting or on Election Day. It is also unclear how many poll workers will be available and willing to work the polls.

Early voting starts April 7 at the Johnson County courthouse, and April 25 at other sites. Election Day is May 5.

The board decided Tuesday to order more bubble cards and envelopes for absentee voting, and determined how many more they would need if the state government decides to go strictly absentee, which would allow voters to cast their ballots at home and mail them in to local voter registration offices to be counted, rather than appearing in person to vote.

The board looked at voter turnout during the last two presidential primaries to determine an appropriate order. Currently, the county’s voter registration office has about 6,000 bubble cards and 10,000 envelopes, said Reagan Higdon, first deputy clerk. During the 2016 primary election, 40% of eligible voters cast ballots. During the 2012 primary, 25% did.

There are about 103,000 registered voters in the county, Higdon said, so the board decided to order at least 40,000 more of each, but doubt turnout will be high if absentee-only voting is enforced.

Another concern is whether physical voting is even feasible at this point, with early voting scheduled to kick off in just a few weeks.

If nothing changes at the state or federal level by then, where will people vote? Huddleston asked. Several of the county’s 22 vote centers are housed in public buildings, such as town halls, fire stations, libraries and churches, most of which are currently closed to the public.

The Johnson County courthouse remains open to the public, although county offices and courthouses in other Indiana counties have closed. The first three weeks of early voting are solely at the courthouse, McLaughlin said.

The board will likely need to vote on an amended vote center plan once McLaughlin determines which vote centers will be open during early voting and on Election Day, although it is likely still be too early to determine that, she said. She told the board she would start reaching out.

So far, no representatives from any of the vote centers have reached out to say election officials can’t use those spaces, she said.

"Until we hear any differently, we’ll assume all of these vote centers will allow us to be in there," McLaughlin said.

Every election, local election officials have scheduled voting times at three assisted living facilities throughout the county, where those residents can vote in person using the county’s voting equipment. McLaughlin said she has been in contact with all three communities, and her staff has sent out absentee voting applications to each of them, encouraging them especially to request ballots they can fill out in the privacy of their own rooms and mail in.

"They haven’t told me that we cannot use their facilities for early voting, but I think that’s probably the path we’re going toward," McLaughlin said.

Voter registration staff is working tirelessly to send out absentee voting applications, mailing out hundreds a day, she said. Voters must request an absentee ballot by April 23, and return it by noon on Election Day so it can be counted, Higdon said.

Health officials have determined seniors — individuals over the age of 60 — are the most at-risk population. Both COVID-19 related deaths in Indiana, including one in Johnson County, were seniors.

"Another thing is, do we even have people who are willing to staff this? Would you want to be there staffing it?" Huddleston said.

Many of the county’s poll workers are seniors.

"Nobody over 65 is going to want to work the polls," said Diane Lindley, an election board member.

McLaughlin said she is working with party leaders to put together a backup list of poll workers.

"But it’s a stretch to even get what we need," Barrow said.

For now, it is unclear exactly what will happen with the state’s primary election, when voters will make their party’s picks for local, state and national leaders.

"I think everything’s on the table; a legislature emergency meeting, changing the way we’re going to do this whole thing, postponing the whole thing," Huddleston said. "The only thing you can do … you’re in a situation of catching rather than pitching. You’re going to have react. Otherwise, you (plan) to go on as normal. You can’t change the way you vote just because someone says so. Only the legislature can do that."

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Voters who would like an absentee ballot must first fill out an application requesting one.

That application can be downloaded on the county’s website at http://co.johnson.in.us/community-corrections/voter-registration/ or on the state’s website at https://indianavoters.in.gov/. It can also be requested by calling 317-346-4467 or 317-346-4466, emailing [email protected] or visiting the voter registration office in the lower level of the Johnson County courthouse, 5 E. Jefferson St., Franklin.

Applications are due by April 23.

Once an application is received, the county’s bi-partisan absentee board will send out the voter’s ballot and a bubble card for them to fill out. Those must be sealed in the postage paid envelope that comes with their ballot and hand delivered to the voter registration office by the voter or someone who lives with the voter (this must be proven with a government-issued ID), or mailed to:

Johnson Co. Voter Registration

P.O. Box 451

Franklin, IN 46131-0451

Deadline for absentee ballots: Noon on Election Day, May 5