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Federal judges strike down Indiana laws that impeded voter participation

Federal judges strike down Indiana laws that impeded voter participation

Indianapolis Federal Courthouse

The U.S. District Courthouse for the Southern District of Indiana is located in downtown Indianapolis.

Hoosier voters are less likely to have their mail-in absentee ballot rejected, or find their voter registration purged without notice, following rulings by federal judges Thursday in two separate election law cases.

The decisions, which are expected to be appealed by Indiana's Republican attorney general, each strike down state laws nominally aimed at minimizing voter fraud, but were more likely to prevent legitimate voters from participating in the electoral process, the judges said.

In Frederick v. Lawson, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker, appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, determined Indiana's practice of automatically rejecting mail-in absentee ballots when the voter's signature on the ballot envelope does not precisely match the voter's signature on the absentee ballot application is unconstitutional.

Barker said not only are bipartisan county election judges not trained to understand potential legitimate reasons for signature variations, voters with a perceived signature flaw are provided no notice their mail-in ballot was rejected in time to cast another ballot at an in-person voting site.

"While the overall number of voters disenfranchised by the signature verification is not overwhelmingly large, there is nonetheless a real risk of erroneous rejection, particularly given the natural variations in a person's handwriting," Barker said.

According to court records, 32 of the 8,078 mail-in ballots (0.4%) cast in Lake County in the 2018 general election were rejected for a signature mismatch, while zero absentee ballots were rejected for that reason in either Porter or LaPorte counties.

Barker concluded the lack of opportunity to remedy a defective mail-in ballot violates the 14th Amendment's due process and equal protection requirements because "the state's reasons for the signature verification requirement do not outweigh the burden the challenged statutes place on the fundamental right to vote of Indiana voters entitled to vote by mail-in absentee ballot."

As a result, Barker prohibited the secretary of state and all county election officials from rejecting any mail-in absentee ballot on the basis of a signature mismatch, for the Nov. 3 general election and all future elections, absent adequate notice and cure procedures to the affected voter.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a government accountability organization that backed the lawsuit, said the decision is "a historic win for Indiana voters."

"Election laws should protect people's right to vote and the integrity of our election system. Indiana's signature matching law failed to do either, and wrongly disenfranchised Hoosiers. The court made the right decision to block its enforcement," Vaughn said.

The second ruling, Indiana NAACP v. Lawson, permanently bars Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson and the Indiana Election Division from removing a registered voter from the rolls, without a specific request from the voter or by following the voter removal process outlined in federal law.

A 2017 statute, updated earlier this year by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Senate Enrolled Act 334, generally authorized election officials to automatically purge a registered Indiana voter, if a voter with a similar name, birth date and other identifying factors was found to be registered in another state.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, said canceling a voter's registration without attempting to contact the voter, or waiting two election cycles if the voter cannot be reached and does not cast a ballot, runs afoul of the Constitution.

"Because an individual cannot vote after an election has passed, it is clear that the wrongful disenfranchisement of a registered voter would cause irreparable harm without an adequate remedy at law," she said.

In a statement, the attorney general's office said it is reviewing the orders "and will consider the options that are in the best interests of the state."

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