Indiana rejecting fewer absentee ballots
Current limits still cause for concern for voting advocates
Counties reported rejecting just 696 absentee ballots of 186,672 total in 2022, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s office. (Getty Images)
Indiana’s 92 counties rejected less than 1% of absentee ballots in May’s midterm primary elections, hundreds less than in 2018.
Recent state guidance stemming from a 2020 legal decision might’ve helped, but voting rights advocates are still sounding the alarm over other ballot practices and a system they say doesn’t provide continuity statewide.
“There’s an alarming lack of uniformity across the state. There’s really 92 different ways of administering elections,” said Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan election watchdog. “There were some counties like St. Joseph County that were ruthless, just threw out ballots right and left. And then there were other counties that had no rejections caused by signature mismatches.”
Counties reported rejecting just 696 absentee ballots of 186,672 total in 2022, in data obtained from the Indiana Secretary of State’s office. That 0.37% rejection rate bests 2018’s 0.66% rate, in which counties scrapped 1,217 of 183,686 ballots.
In Texas, election officials rejected roughly 12.4% of mail-in ballots during the state’s March primary, according to figures released by the Texas secretary of state. The Texas Tribune reported that the rate amounted to a significant surge in rejections compared with previous years, including the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election, when officials tossed less than 1% of ballots.
Republican states like Texas have cracked down on mail-in voting. The party also controls the Indiana Senate, House and all statewide offices.
There's an alarming lack of uniformity across the state.
– Julia Vaughn, Common Cause Indiana
Indiana law lays out 10 reasons vote counters can deny ballots, including if a voter didn’t register, voted in the wrong precinct, voted in-person on Election Day, didn’t sign their ballot or the signature is labeled as not matching. But counties don’t have to report to the state why ballots are rejected so there are no statewide statistics available on the reasons.
Until 2021, election officials didn’t even need to tell voters when their ballots were rejected for signature mismatches, or let them “cure” their ballots. That year, Indiana’s Republican-dominated state legislature approved Senate Bill 398, introducing notification and cure requirements to reflect a 2020 legal ruling.
Common Cause Indiana sued in 2019, filing Frederick v. Lawson in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
Vaughn said that when the group contacted individual plaintiffs, they were “shocked” to learn their ballots had been rejected and that there was no requirement to inform them. Lead plaintiff Mary Frederick has Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that affects movement. As the illness progressed, her signature changed.
U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker permanently enjoined Indiana election officials from rejecting mail-in absentee ballots for signature mismatches without taking those two actions.
St. Joseph County Election Clerk Penny Stratton confirmed that the county now notifies voters whose ballots they’ve rejected for signature mismatches and offers them the opportunity to prove their identities. The county had rejected 1.6% of absentee ballots by Election Day in May, up from 1.1% in 2018.
Stratton said vote counters had labeled eight ballots as having non-matching signatures, three ballots as missing state-required initials and one envelope as being opened. That’s lower than the 38 rejections the county reported on Election Day, but could include ballots that were cured by deadlines later in May.
Marion and Allen counties, Indiana’s two most populous, also confirmed they follow the new procedures. Vaughn said Common Cause hasn’t followed up on the effects of the new guidance because it just went into effect. But she and Indiana Vote by Mail leader Barbara Tully highlighted the discretion afforded to county-level officials.
Tully advocated for bipartisan teams to conduct signature verifications, and to receive regular handwriting analysis training to that end.
Legislature takes aim
More than 1 in 4 Hoosier voters didn’t vote in person on Election Day in May.
The 178,065 absentee ballots Indiana accepted included about 149,000 early in-person votes, nearly 41,000 mail-ins, about 6,000 ballots hand-delivered to residents unable to leave their homes, and 313 emailed votes. The number of mail-ins was up from nearly 33,000 in 2018, according to data collected by the state.
But that could change, as state legislators target mail-in voting. Last session, House Bill 1116 passed out of the House with provisions requiring voters requesting mail-in ballots to swear under penalty of perjury that they couldn’t vote in-person during any of the 28 days ahead of Election Day.
Then, the Senate’s Elections Committee stripped it out.
“We all threw fits in the voting rights community,” Tully said. “… Before we even–they opened it up for public testimony–[Elections Committee Majority Member and Republican] Greg Walker spoke, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ve taken out the part that has to deal with a further restriction on absentee voting. It doesn’t make sense.’ … And I about fell out of my chair.”
The bill retained a provision requiring voters to provide their driver’s license number or last four social security number digits.
Common Cause has turned its sights toward a new facet of voting rights: identification requirements for mass voter registration events, like those held at high schools. State law doesn’t require potential voters who hand-deliver their registration forms to include the ID they would otherwise have to include in a mailed application.
Vaughn said the group had learned of a county that requires people who’d registered to vote through such events to fill out provisional ballots. The ballots are used when a voter’s eligibility is in question, and aren’t counted when they’re cast. Instead, a voter will need to provide the information election officials request by deadline so the vote gets counted.
Vaughn, who declined to name the county, said Common Cause was preparing to file an administrative complaint. The group has already filed public records requests for ballot envelopes in hopes of contacting potential plaintiffs.
“There’s a lot of playing fast and loose at the local level,” Vaughn said. “I think that’s really unfortunate and really speaks to the need for greater oversight at the state level.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.