VALPARAISO — Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, predicted late Tuesday night that election officials will not know any vote totals for any races until Wednesday. He didn't say what time Wednesday a final count might be available.
No candidates in Porter County and its municipal and other races knew as of 11:20 Tuesday night which of them had won.
Biggs, who spoke after 11 p.m. to The Times from the Porter County administration building, where votes were to be counted, said, “There had been poll workers who were told to not even leave their polling sites until 8:30, which contributed to the delays."
Biggs was referring to a judge's order that 12 polling sites remain open until between 7 and 8:30 p.m., depending on how late they had opened Tuesday morning.
Biggs was unclear as to who told poll workers at all polling sites to stay, presumably an election official.
Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney said as of 11:15 p.m. Tuesday, county officials were just beginning to see an end to a long bottleneck of campaign workers trying to turn in their results at the administration building in Valparaiso.
Blaney said a combination of snafus in opening polling locations on time, polling places that had be to kept open later as a result and absentee and early ballots that either weren’t sorted or counted in a timely fashion contributed to the backlog.
“This can’t happen again,” said Blaney, noting that she saw some poll workers, who had been on the job since 5 a.m., standing in long lines to turn in their results some 18 hours later.
“Everybody looks exhausted," Biggs said. "It's going to be a slow, monotonous process until it's finished," he said of the vote count.
Biggs attributed the problems to a variety of factors, including a "combination of a heavy voter turnout, the problems of several poling places not opening on time, and other problems that will be discussed in the near future.
“Something drastic needs to be done to ensure this never happens again," Biggs said. "What we have here is a total breakdown in the process. Big changes are coming due to this."
Blaney said several Porter County officials would be probing the problems in coming days to determine why they occurred.
"Big changes are coming due to this," she said.
Judge orders all ballots counted Tuesday
A judge ordered Porter County election officials to count all absentee and early ballots Tuesday night as regular ballots, even if they were delivered to polling places late in the day or after the voting ended, according to Porter County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Jeff Chidester.
The order was sought by local Democrats, who feared the late arrival of the ballots to the polling places would throw them into a provisional status of not being counted until later or not at all, Chidester said.
The legal action comes after a busy day of wrangling between Republicans and Democrats in a local court in the wake of 12 polling sites opening up to 2 1/2 hours late.
The order involving the absentee and early ballots was granted by Judge Pro Tem Julia Jent, who was sitting in for Porter Superior Court Judge David Chidester, brother of Jeff Chidester.
The petition filed Tuesday night by local Democrats claimed that Porter County Clerk Karen Martin did not get the absentee ballots to their respective polling places until late in the voting day or after the polls were closed, according to Monica Conrad, an attorney for the local Democratic Party.
State law requires "each county election board to have all absentee ballots delivered to precinct election boards at their respective polls on Election Day during the hours that the polls are open," according to the petition.
Conrad said the concern is that the ballots were delivered too late in the day to be counted among the regular ballots. She was unsure what it would mean if the ballots are not counted today as required by law.
Martin did not responded to a request for comment.
Jeff Chidester said he delivered the order to election officials Tuesday night.
Porter Superior Court Judge Roger Bradford earlier Tuesday ordered 12 polling places in the county to remain open past the typical 6 p.m. closing time to make up for late starts.
A later attempt by Indiana Republican Party Central Committee to convince the judge to reverse his ruling failed.
Chris Buckley, an attorney for the committee, said the court did not have legal authority to extend the hours, and by Bradford's doing so, was setting a precedent that could see other elections landing in the courtroom.
Buckley argued voters had plenty of time to cast their ballots through early voting and absentee ballots.
Conrad, an attorney for the local Democratic Party, and Ethan Lowe, an attorney for the Porter County Election Board, both argued Bradford was well within state and federal law by extending the polling place hours.
Conrad also attempted to add a 13th precinct, Portage Township 23, which voted at Real Life Community Church, 3134 Swanson Road, Portage, to the list. Conrad said the polling place did not open until 7:20 a.m.
Bradford said closing the polls, without leaving them open for a full 12 hours, would disenfranchise voters. He upheld his earlier ruling, but also ruled the hours would not be extended for Portage Township 23.
The affected polling places and extended closing times are:
- Portage Township 19 and 31, South Haven Public Library 403 W. 700 N., Valparaiso, until 8:30 p.m.
- Liberty Township 3, Faith Memorial Lutheran Church, 753 N. Calumet Ave., Valparaiso, until 7:45 p.m.
- Portage Township 28, South Haven Nazarene Church, 621 N. 450 W., Valparaiso, until 7:40 p.m.
- Portage Township 20, Ingram Manor Community Building, 3801 County Line Rd., Portage, until 7:30 p.m.
- Westchester Township 13, Porter County Visitor Center 1215, Ind., Chesterton, until 7:30 p.m.
- Portage Township 14, Kyle Elementary School, 2701 Hamstrom Road, Portage, until 7:30 p.m.
- Westchester 14 and 9, Brummitt Elementary School, 2500 Indian Boundary Road, Chesterton, until 7 p.m.
- Portage Township 15 and 33, South Haven Fire Department, 398 W. 700 N., Valparaiso, until 7 p.m.
- Porter Township 6, Lakes of the Four Seasons Fire Department, 745 W. 275 S., Crown Point, until 7:15 p.m.
The delays were granted at the requests of the Porter County Election Board and Porter County Democratic Central Committee.
The election board had sought to keep all polling places open until 7 p.m., while Democrats targeted just those that opened late.
The election board, which was represented by Republican Chairman David Bengs and Lowe at the morning hearing, argued they knew of just six polling places that opened late as a result of a shortage of workers and access problems.
Lowe suggested keeping the locations open no later than 7 p.m. out of concern that poll workers, who start as early as 5 a.m., may just leave early.
Conrad provided the longer list of late openings and suggested keeping just those sites open until 8 p.m. to allow time to vote for those returning from work in Chicago.
Judge's decision based on legislative intent
Bradford, who is the only county judge not on the ballot or with a family member on the ballot, said he based his ruling on the legislative intent that polling places are to remain open 12 hours. The extended times are based on the reported delays for each affected site.
The judge, who along with Bengs wore a sticker proclaiming he had voted, took a swipe at the Porter County Board of Commissioners for limiting the pool of available poll workers by eliminating Election Day as a paid holiday for county government employees.
"They got rid of that holiday for whatever reason and are now whining about not having enough people," Bradford said from the bench.
County Commissioner Jim Biggs responded Tuesday afternoon, saying, "Although I wasn’t in the commissioners office at the time, I was on the County Council. It was obvious to everyone paying half-attention that only a very small percentage of employees were actually willing to work the polls."
Biggs said the commissioners dissolved that day off, as it had been created for employees to work the elections.
"The real problem here is not that the commissioners took away what had been a paid day off, it’s what the county is willing to pay poll workers, which is $100 for what in most cases turns into a 13- to 14-hour work day," Biggs said.
Biggs said it is the responsibility of the election board, the voter registration office and the county chairman of both political parties who hire individuals.
"What should be obvious to everyone after today is that there needs to be major changes made to the current process moving forward," Biggs said.
Emergency meeting held to delay hours
The election board's decision to seek the delay came following an emergency meeting late Tuesday morning. The three-member board's sole Democrat member, J.J. Stankiewicz, said he could not make the meeting.
Karen Martin, the Porter County Clerk and Election Board member who took over control of elections this year from the county voter registration office, said of poll workers, "We had a lot of people quit on us at the last minute."
Additional problems stemmed from poll inspectors not picking up cases of supplies and sites not being opened when poll workers arrived, she said.
Martin, a Republican, is on the ballot in her attempt to unseat Democratic Porter County Auditor Vicki Urbanik.
Porter County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Chidester said earlier Tuesday the group was scrambling to figure out how many polling places opened significantly late.
"To just say there are six and call it a day is not right," he said. "There are more than that. It's almost a moving target."
At least one Democratic Party member called for polls to remain open until 8 p.m.
"Because of the mistakes made by the board and the clerk, voters in Portage, and elsewhere are being disenfranchised by no fault of their own," Portage City Councilman Collin Czilli, D-5th, said. "This is unacceptable."
Chidester said it appeared all the polling places in Porter County were open by midmorning.
Problems at the polls
Voters told The Times the polling location inside Faith Memorial Lutheran Church at 753 N. Calumet Ave. in Liberty Township did not open until 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half after the scheduled time.
One voter reported the poll at South Haven Public Library, 403 W. 700 North in Portage Township, opened late.
Another voter reported a polling station at the Lakes of the Four Seasons fire station, 745 W. County Road 275 South, did not open on time.
Porter County commissioners issued a statement just before 9 a.m., saying they understand the ability to vote "is the keystone of our democracy."
"We know there have been some issues with polling locations opening late today. We understand the frustration of voters in these locations," the commissioners said in their joint statement.
"We are ready to help in any capacity within our means. We implore the election board to take legal action to keep the polls open beyond their regular schedules."
Chidester said the cause of the delays Tuesday morning has yet to be determined, but added had heard some poll workers were so stressed they walked off the job early in the day.
Portage City Councilman Czilli, D-5th, called on Martin to "do the right thing and extend voting hours for all of Porter County."
Czilli said several polling locations in Portage did not open on time.
"Those making this decision should do whatever they can to ensure that every voter has a chance to vote," he said. "They have a responsibility to run fair elections and this is the only solution."
Martin and Bengs, the two Republican members of the election board, voted earlier this year to take control of local elections from the county voter registration office.
Stankiewicz, the lone Democratic member of the three-person board, argued against shifting the control, because Martin, as a candidate on this year's ballot, was prohibited from administering the election.
Martin told The Times last spring the law says only that her signature cannot be on the back of the ballot, which it is not.
Voters sound off
Stephanie Campana, of Liberty Township, said she arrived about 6 a.m. at Faith Memorial Lutheran Church and was the fourth person to cast her vote just after 7:30 a.m.
Campana estimated about 20 people left, but added many more never showed up because voters already waiting in line called them to warn them of the delay.
Others estimated up to 100 people left the polling location without voting.
Campana said many of her neighbors work in Chicago. She was aware of one man who left without voting and will not be able to commute home in time tonight to cast his ballot.
Mary Ann Nowak said she waited until 6:20 a.m., but then left.
"There were a lot of people who work at the mill who probably won't be able to come back," she said.
Nowak has never before seen problems of this magnitude at the polling location, she said.
"We have voted there for years, so I'm not sure what happened," she said.
Campana said she was told the Republican who was to serve as inspector did not show up, so the poll could not open. Several voters said in addition to the lack of an inspector, the ballots were not delivered on time.
Charles Murphy said he also lined up at 6 a.m. at the poll. He estimated 100 people left without voting.
"I heard many people say they won't be able to vote now, or they hope they get out of work early tonight so they can vote," he said.
Murphy said he hoped election officials would keep the polls open longer, so those who left will be able to return tonight to cast ballots.
Times Staff Writer Joyce Russell contributed to this story.
Check back at nwi.com for updates as this story develops.
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