Bill bringing voter ID to mail-in ballot applications advances

Plus, a ban on highlighting applications and debate over who can distribute them

By: - February 16, 2023 7:00 am

Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, is moving a bill that will make it harder to vote by mail in Indiana. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

A Republican-led House committee on Wednesday approved a heavily amended bill adding voter identification requirements to mail-in ballot applications, among other restrictions.

Proponents said the legislation would boost election confidence and push in-person voting, while opponents said it could lead to confusion and disenfranchisement for Hoosier voters.

“The desired intent of this bill is not to disqualify absentee ballots, but it is to validate and authenticate that the person applying for the absentee ballot is the person that they say they are,” bill author Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, said. He also chairs the elections committee.

The original bill would have vastly limited who could vote by mail but that provision was removed.

Expansion of voter I.D. laws

Right now, voters requesting mail-in ballots are asked — but not required — to provide the last four digits of their Social Security Numbers on their applications. House Bill 1334 would make that mandatory, and more.

It would require a voter to put down those last four numbers, or one of three other identifiers: an Indiana driver’s license number, a non-driver identification card number or a unique identifier for those who registered to vote decades ago. A voter could instead include a photocopy of the license or non-driver card in the envelope with the application.

County election boards would have to match at least one of the numbers with information in the voter’s registration record. If there were no match, the county’s partisan clerk would send back a new application with an explanation of what went wrong.

Co-author Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis, said the identification match adds security, and that the bill was in response to constituent election doubts and complaints.

Rep. Mike Speedy, R-Indianapolis, checks his phone on the House floor. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“Absentee voting was designed for people who couldn’t make it to the polls for one reason or the other,” Speedy said. “This bill, as amended, tries to get us back to that place.”

Others said the requirement would be more objective than practices like signature-matching, as signatures can change with age and health problems.

Voting rights advocates pushed back.

“We should be removing those kinds of barriers [to voting], not adding additional ones. This bill is unnecessary,” said Julia Vaughn, who leads nonpartisan elections watchdog Common Cause Indiana.

“We’ve got a solution here in search of a problem, and I wish we would just abandon these efforts,” she added.

And elections officials cautioned that the bill could lead to more rejected applications.

Indiana’s voter registration system only contains the social security number and license numbers a voter entered at the time they registered, said Indiana Election Division Co-Director Angie Nussmeyer, a Democrat. Some people might not know which they used.

And she noted that before 2001, state law didn’t require either. Hoosiers that registered prior to that have only a randomly generated identifier on file, which they’d only be able to find by calling the county clerk’s office through which they originally registered.

Opponents also expressed concern for voters who don’t want to provide those identifiers for security concerns, as well as how securely county elections officials would store the numbers and I.D. photocopies.

Highlights could render application “defective”

The bill would ban groups who register voters from highlighting or otherwise marking up anything on the mail-in ballot application.

Wesco said he didn’t want voters pushed to sign up for one party or another on primary mail-in ballot applications — “That’s an important decision for them to make independently,” he said.

Lake County Board of Elections Assistant Director LeAnn Angerman said she believed forms were already well-designed to draw the reader’s eye through all of the necessary fields, and that the forms should stay “uniform.”

Numerous Republican lawmakers also argued that if highlighting were truly required, almost all the fields would end up with markings.

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Nussmeyer, the Democrat elections chief, said that in a past role running elections for Marion County, her team often highlighted the missing fields in rejected mail-in ballot applications before sending them back to voters.

“The largest number of applications that were rejected in our primary were because the voter did not mark the primary, or they quite simply forgot to sign it,” she said.

While the provision sparked hearty debate as written, there’s more left: the language doesn’t include details on how to tell apart highlights made by organizations versus those made by voters themselves — or the consequences of highlights.

“The voter can mark or highlight anything on the absentee ballot application. However, the person providing the absentee ballot cannot,” Wesco told the Capital Chronicle. “How would you know who … marked it up in that way? That’s an excellent question. We might want to discuss that further.”

Asked if mail-in ballot applications would include large notices warning readers against highlighting or marking up the forms, Wesco said he wasn’t sure. He said enforcement might be up to county clerks.

“If it’s just some miscellaneous marking on a single ballot, that’s not going to raise any red flags. But if you’re getting back dozens and dozens of ballots that are marked, then you have a problem,” Wesco said.

But there’s no procedure set out in the bill.

Changes to who can request an application

The bill would also bar state agencies and local units of government from sending out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications. State law already requires political parties and voting registration groups to include “disclaimers” when they send out unsolicited applications.

Nussmeyer pointed out that the provision, intended to stop large-scale send-outs, could block state and local election officials from sending applications to multiple people in the same household.

Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, talks through potential changes to his elections bill with a Legislative Services Agency staffer. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“You would say, ‘I need an absentee application for three people in my household,’ and I would say, ‘I’m sorry, I can only send it to you — what is your name and address?'” she said. “That’s how I would handle it if this bill becomes law.”

“I don’t understand the need to verify who the individual is if I’m sending a blank, publicly available form,” she said.

Wesco, after the committee meeting, was already considering a fix.

“We don’t want a state or local government entity mass-mailing absentee ballots [applications]. However, if somebody requests absentee ballots for those in their home, I think that’s something that I’m content with,” he said.

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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