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Lake County election officials receive a controversial precinct reduction plan

Lake County Elections Board Director Michelle Fajman, a Democrat, left and LeAnn Angerman, the ranking Republican on the election staff, center, discuss a consolidation plan delivered in August by Brandon Clifton, chief of staff of the Indiana secretary of state's office.

CROWN POINT — The state is telling Lake County election officials to start eliminating the county's 170 smallest precincts by Friday, or the state may do it for them — and send them the bill.

Secretary of State Connie Lawson dropped this stern warning Wednesday on the Lake County Board of Elections and Registration.

It comes nearly one month after the board's two Republican members called on the whole board to order commencement of the controversial precinct remap. The board's three Democratic board members voted to postpone the matter.

Democrats said at the time they weren't obstructing the work of trimming the county's 523 precincts, only putting it off temporarily to avoid conflicts with the Sept. 25 Griffith secession referendum and the Nov. 6 general election for federal, state, county, township and some municipal offices.

However, Lawson's letter, dated Sept. 14, summarily orders board members to "confirm no later than (Friday) that your staff will begin work to implement the precinct consolidations and an estimated timetable."

The letter states her office stands ready to help the county redraw precinct lines, but she warns that if they don't, she will ask voter registration system vendors to reconfigure Lake County's precincts and will recover the cost of that work from the county election board.

Kevin Smith, the county election board's chairman and a Democrat, said Wednesday he has no plans to place Lawson's demand on the agenda for Friday's board meeting.

"Lake County Elections Director Michelle Fajman is going to issue a response to the secretary of state, and we will follow the law as we always have done and which we always will do. We will have more than enough time. The secretary of state's position isn't consistent with what we are doing, which is making sure the elections are done properly."

Dan Dernulc, the Lake County Republican Party chairman, said Wednesday Lake County needs to comply with the law and reduce its precincts. He said he would prefer Lake County do the required work.

The Republican-dominated General Assembly ordered Lawson earlier this year to eliminate Lake County precincts with fewer than 600 active voters to save money on Election Day equipment and staffing costs.

Lake Democrats have for years opposed consolidation on grounds it would disproportionately reduce precincts primarily made up of minority voters who would have difficulty traveling the extra distance to consolidated polling places.

Lawson made public Aug. 1 her consolidation plan that, as Democrats feared, cut most deeply into precincts in their north county strongholds of East Chicago, Hammond and Gary.

It will require county officials to shift more than 100 polling places, including 28 in Gary, 24 in Hammond, a dozen in East Chicago, seven in Merrillville, six in Highland, five in Crown Point, four in Munster and a handful in the county's remaining municipalities, but none in Lake Station, St. John and Winfield.

It also will require party leaders to eliminate all the precinct committee members whose precincts are eliminated in the consolidation. The impact will fall most heavily on Democrats.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.