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Curtis Hill

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Election Commission has a statutory duty to approve a plan for consolidating Lake County's "small" election precincts, and should remain in continuous session until it has done so.

That's the official opinion of Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill Jr., in response to a query by the commission's Republican Chairman Bryce Bennett Jr., asking what should be done after the commission last year was unable to enact a consolidation plan on two occasions.

Hill said the 2017 precinct consolidation law is clear: "The commission's obligation to issue a precinct establishment order for Lake County is a continuing one, and it's mandatory."

"The chairman, pursuant to statute, should reconvene the commission for this purpose, and it should remain in session until such time as an order is developed and agreed upon," Hill said.

The attorney general also warned that if the commission failed to convene on its own, or remained unable to adopt a consolidation plan, the governor has the authority to order the commission to meet until it has carried out its duty.

Records show Lake County has the most "small" precincts in Indiana, with 283 of its 523 precincts recording fewer than 600 active voters.

Senate Enrolled Act 220 directed local officials to consolidate as many of those small precincts as possible in order to save money by reducing polling place staffing and equipment costs at voting sites that see only a handful of ballots cast on Election Day.

When members of the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration were unable to agree to a consolidation plan, the law shipped the task of consolidating Lake precincts to the four-member Indiana Election Commission.

In August, the commission's two Republicans and two Democrats failed to award the three votes needed to approve either of the consolidation plans offered by Lake County Republicans.

As a result, Lake County's small precincts so far remain intact heading into the May 8 primary election.

The Indiana Election Commission is scheduled to meet again Feb. 23. But Lake County precinct consolidation is not listed on its posted agenda.

Separately, the Gary-based Indiana NAACP and several Region residents are suing the commission in federal court seeking to block the adoption of any precinct consolidation plan.

They claim that merging small precincts will make it more difficult for minorities to exercise their right to vote, particularly those living in northern Lake County cities where the most small precincts are located.

The case is scheduled for trial in September.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.