Voting advocacy groups and county election workers have retooled ahead of the June 2 primary to account for an immense volume of people opting to vote by mail.
Even so, they say turnout is likely to be lower than anticipated.
Autumn Pickett, co-director of Purdue Votes, said several awareness campaigns were planned. The student-led organization had persuaded the county to set up two early voting sites in the Purdue Memorial Union and Krach Leadership Center.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels announced the decision to cancel in-person classes in mid-March, and the plans collapsed.
“It became kind of infeasible for people to develop a comprehensive plan, especially when everything was changing beneath our feet,” Pickett said this week.
The group organized three online lunch-and-learn events in late March and April with Purdue’s Civic Engagement and Leadership Development Center. The programs focused on educating students about deadlines for mail-in ballot requests and monitoring shifting dates surrounding the election.
Pickett said Purdue Votes has been in touch with administrators and plans to host large-scale registration events during the fall semester to prepare for the general election.
“Some things are just out of our control,” she said. “The primary has been messy, but I’m hopeful for the general.”
Mail-in ballots are unpopular in Indiana, so the focus has been to reorient voters, Greater Lafayette League of Women Voters committee chairperson Ken Jones said.
The league has shifted normally robust tabling and voter registration efforts on social media to promotion of absentee-by-mail voting, Jones said. Media advertising directed at students slated for the run-up to the primary has been pulled.
“Everyone was anticipating a huge turnout,” Jones said. “And then you empty campus. You empty West Lafayette. And then you have no idea what the health conditions of the population or poll workers or polling sites are going to be. And then suddenly you’re switching to a vote-by-mail election.”
Another student population, 18-year-old high school seniors, are a target Jones said the league will be unlikely to reach this year.
The group planned to conduct registration programs at four Greater Lafayette high schools in March. The programs were canceled after the schools ceased in-person classes after Spring Break. Vote centers would have been accessible to students in each high school had the primary been held as normal in May, Jones said.
Jones estimates the league’s efforts would have registered 600 to 800 first-time voters. There may be lasting consequences on the voting habits of young people who are at risk of missing their first opportunity to vote, he said.
“In two years, are they going to be voters? Or did we just skip something really important here?” he said. “I’m afraid the latter is probably true."
A barrage of mail-in ballots
In the 2016 presidential primary, Tippecanoe County election worker Mike Smith said the Board of Elections received about 500 absentee-by-mail requests. Hours after Thursday's noon filing deadline, more than 9,000 voters had requested mail-in ballots, and close to 3,000 had already returned the ballots with their selections.
Indiana has eased normally restrictive measures on mail-in voting to discourage large numbers of Hoosiers from heading to the polls and potentially spreading COVID-19. Normally, voters who want to mail ballots must prove why they’re unable to visit the polls on Election Day by meeting one of 11 stipulations.
The board will hand-sort the ballots into large mail tubs, Smith said, as they don’t have a machine to replicate the process. The tubs are locked in cages, each with "a Democrat key and a Republican key," to secure the ballots and prevent tampering, Tippecanoe County Clerk Julie Roush said.
Smith said the board of elections initially forecast 40,000 voters for the 2020 primary, noting that was before former Vice President Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The expectation has decreased to 35,000, and about one-fifth of the projected number of ballots have already been received by mail.
“I think it’s a trade-off,” Smith said, adding that only 3% to 5% of county voters usually vote by mail. “The huge number we’re getting from mail-in ballots have to come from somewhere.”
The unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots will slow the counting process, Smith said. Voting machines electronically record results, but the stray pencil marks and missing boxes that appear on paper ballots require them to be fed by hand into seven to 10 "optical scanners" that count them.
"By law we can only start counting on election day, but we did get approval that at 6 a.m. we're going to start counting," Roush said. "There's actually a different central counting site that we're using."
Is in-person voting safe?
In-person voting will still occur, though there will be fewer polling locations in Tippecanoe County than in previous elections. Smith said 14 of 19 voting sites will remain open on Election Day, with just eight locations open for early voting from May 26 to June 1.
Early, or absentee-in-person, voting in Indiana traditionally occurs over 28 days leading up to Election Day. This year, early voters will have less than a week to cast ballots.
Certain locations were closed due to building capacities that cannot safely host a large number of voters, Smith said. Places such as Lafayette City Hall were shut down because small, enclosed spaces are unsafe for dense crowds of people. Smith said all remaining locations have been vetted and are large enough to accommodate physical distancing.
“Folks are going to turn out for it,” he said. “We’re taking all kinds of precautions. Workers are going to be gloved and masked.”
Voters standing in line will be spaced 6 feet apart, guidance that will be enforced by an elections worker who Smith deemed a “hall monitor.” Those who show up without face masks won't be turned away, nor will the county provide them with masks.
Roush said the secretary of state's office delivered a shipment of masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, plastic face visors and Plexiglas shields to surround voting equipment.
Roush added that voters will use stylus pens to interact with touch screens rather than their fingers. The pens will be sanitized after each use and not used again until a sufficient amount of time has passed to kill germs.