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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 early Wednesday by Brandon Clifton, chief of staff of the Indiana secretary of state's office, right.

CROWN POINT — Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson wiped 170 primarily Democratic Party-controlled precincts off of Lake County's political map in consolidation plans made public Wednesday morning.

The deepest cuts came in Lake County's predominately Democratic north communities. East Chicago will lose 14 precincts, Hammond 33 and Gary 54.

There are reductions in central and southern suburban communities as well, including: nine precincts in Merrillville, eight in Crown Point, seven in Highland and Hobart and Schererville, five in Munster, four in Griffith and Lake Station, three in Dyer and Whiting, two in St. John, unincorporated West Creek and Winfield Township and one apiece in unincorporated Calumet, Cedar Creek, Center and St. John Township, Cedar Lake and New Chicago.

The changes won't go into effect until next year. No precincts were moved across township or municipal borders. 

James Wieser, Lake's Democratic Party chairman, denounced the plan as an effort by the Republican-dominated Legislature and state government to suppress the vote in Democratic strongholds.

"As many as a third of our precinct committeemen, elected in May, have been unelected by a stroke of a pen," Wieser said.

Lake County Clerk Mike Brown, a Democratic member of the county elections board added, "This hurts the north end of Lake County. This in my opinion is unacceptable."

Brandon Clifton, chief of staff for Lawson, who delivered the consolidation plan early Wednesday from Indianapolis, responded, "I and Secretary Lawson respectfully disagree."

Clifton said, "There will be no demographic change, either compaction or dillution of minority population because there is no consolidation across city, town or township lines."

He said the new arrangement puts polling places little more than a mile from active voters and a quarter mile from public transportation.

He said the changes sweep away a Lake County precinct map that reflected decades old voter residences before the out-migration of many Gary, Hammond and East Chicago residents to the suburbs.

He said the new map reflects the presence of active voters as of Nov. 1 last year.

Clifton said the changes will save the taxpayers about $117,300 annually in reduced costs of hiring poll workers on election days.

LeAnn Angerman, the ranking Republican on the county elections board staff, thanked the secretary of state office for "their diligent work."

Wieser said there is a strong likelihood someone will challenge this new map in the courts. Clifton said his office is confident the plan will stand up to such a test.

The General Assembly ordered the secretary of state to merge 283 Lake County precincts with fewer than 600 active voters, out of 523 total precincts, to save money on Election Day equipment and staffing costs.

Records show Lake County has considerably more "small" precincts than any other county in the state.

That's generally due to precincts in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary remaining unchanged for the past several decades, and those precinct committeemen continuing in their posts, despite significant county population shifts.

Lake County election officials were given first crack at consolidating precincts. After they repeatedly failed to agree on a plan, and the bipartisan Indiana Election Commission similarly deadlocked, the Legislature assigned the duty to Lawson last month.

Lawson sought input from Lake County residents. In response, the Republican received 16 requests to halt precinct consolidation, seven to move forward with it, one for more time and one for more early voting sites, according to Lawson spokeswoman Valerie Warycha.

Lawson said her office employed Geographic Information System specialist 39 Degrees North of Bloomington, Indiana, and the accounting firm of Baker Tilly, of Philadelphia, translated Lake County's voter information into thousands of data points.

Their analysis found 114 polling places would potentially move to accommodate mergers of small precincts into their neighboring precincts and some 76 polling places would be unchanged by consolidation.

She said the average distance polling places would be moved is 1.002 miles although a St. John Township and a Hobart polling place will be moving 3 miles or more.

Check back at nwi.com for updates as this story develops.

Primary night in Indiana: Complete Region results

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Consolidated Precinct Count by Township and Muncipality

Community Precincts before consolidation Precincts after consolidation Old precincts lost
Calumet Township 6 5 1
Cedar Creek Township 9 8 1
Cedar Lake 10 9 1
Center Township 6 5 1
Crown Point 30 22 8
Dyer 15 12 3
Eagle Creek Township 1 1 0
East Chicago 31 17 14
Gary 105 51 54
Griffith 18 14 4
Hammond 79 46 33
Hanover Township 2 2 0
Highland 25 18 7
Hobart 28 21 7
Lake Station 17 13 4
Merrillville 34 25 9
Munster 25 20 5
New Chicago 4 3 1
Ross Township 1 1 0
Schererville 28 21 7
St. John 17 15 2
St. John Township 9 8 1
West Creek Township 7 5 2
Whiting 6 3 3
Winfield Township 10 8 2
Grand Total 523 353 170

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