Election Investigation Committee begins formulating solutions
On the day of the primary, Tuesday, May 8, five of Marion County’s 917 precinct polls never opened to voters. An additional 135 more polling places opened late.
Why? Because over 100 volunteer poll workers never showed up to work, leaving many precincts understaffed. And about 150 poll inspectors did not pick up voting materials the night before the election like they were supposed to, causing last minute scrambles early primary day morning. Additionally, many ballots and precinct lists were sent to the wrong locations, and some workers ended up with the wrong keys for voting machines.
But this was not the first time Marion County experienced voting problems on Election Day.
In the midterm elections of November 2004, over 100 precincts had to turn in paper ballots because of malfunctioning electronic voting machines. In that year’s primaries six months earlier, there were many problems attributed to the county’s switch from lever voting machines to new optical scan machines.
Though it is unclear just how many voters (or potential voters) were affected by these problems at the polls this year, most politicians, like most voters, believe that one person turned away from the polls is too many and that whatever the scope of the problems are on Election Day, it is simply unacceptable.
This is a response shared by Democratic County Clerk Beth White, who was overseeing her first election last month, and who has said she takes full responsibility for what happened.
Having won her post last November, White said she was “cautiously optimistic” that her first Election Day would run smoothly. White and her staff took office in January, marking the first time in nearly four decades that a Democrat has occupied the office of county clerk and been responsible for Marion County elections.
“I thought that we had done a lot of good work and preparation with additional training that had never been done before,” White said. She added that she felt that the training process was better organized and that her staff had taken precautions to avoid the same sort of technology problems that occurred in recent elections.
So what went wrong?
Both White’s office and an Election Investigation Committee appointed by the City-County Council are investigating this question and looking into how to prevent such problems from occurring again.
“We have been doing a pretty good diagnosis of what happened in May,” White said.
“We were not, I believe, fully prepared for some of the last minute nature of the assignment issues,” White said. “There always are people who cancel at the last minute, but it seems that problem was more acute this time, based on the confusion on our end and based on the fact that the Democrats had not gone through this process in 36 years.”
White attributes some of this confusion to last minute changes to the database that her staff did not handle in the way they should have. This led to some mix-ups for poll inspectors as to what their specific assignments were.
White also said that once poll workers signed up for the job, they may have become “intimidated by the obligation” after going through training or finding out more about their position.
Another contributing factor to the Election Day mess is the sheer number of precincts in Marion County. While most counties in Indiana have fewer than 100 precincts, Marion County has 917.
In 2001, Mayor Bart Peterson attempted to begin the process of “re-precincting” Marion County, and at the time White was one of the people in his office trying to make that happen. However, the “re-precincting” plan was not passed by the Election Board and thus did not go into effect.
Though White believes the county could realistically reduce precincts by about one-third, she cautions that even then Marion County would have around 600 precincts and that this would only address a piece of the puzzle and would not be “a panacea.”
Looking for solutions
In response to the problems that have plagued Marion County elections in recent years, the Indianapolis City-County Council has re-activated the Election Investigation Committee, chaired by Councilor Jackie Nytes (D).
The council originally created the committee in 2004 to go over election problems that occurred when White’s predecessor, Republican Doris Anne Sadler, was in office. It had not met since 2004, but after May’s primary, the committee was reconvened.
The committee now includes Republicans Susie Day, Ryan Vaughn and Robert Lutz and Democrats Jackie Nytes, Lonnell Connelly, Cherish Pyror and Ron Gibson.
The new committee met for the first time last Thursday, June 7.
At Thursday’s meeting, the councilors discussed how they plan to proceed with their investigation and what their priorities should be.
The entire council seemed to be in agreement with Gibson’s statement that “The public deserves an open and honest dialogue regarding the problems in the last election.”
Nytes plans to host four separate regional meetings within the county to get feedback from the community, in addition to the three remaining regularly scheduled meetings they have. In early August, the committee is scheduled to present their final report and recommendations to City-County Council President Monroe Gray.
Lutz said he was concerned that the committee would not be able to make much progress in just a few meetings, and Nytes warned that the committee “could not luxuriate” in this process.
She later added, “There is no doubt we’re going to have to do work behind the scenes between our committee meetings.”
In the meantime, White, who appeared at Thursday’s meeting, said she looks forward to working with the committee and reported that her office has already made a number of plans for this fall’s election: “I think we are poised to really iron out a lot of these problems.”