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Dispute over absentee ballot signatures affects several in St. Joseph County

Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 5:45 PM EDT
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ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - A federal judge says some changes need to be made if Indiana’s next election is to pass constitutional muster.

The court ordered changes deal with the way absentee ballots are processed.

The suit has a strong St. Joseph County connection in that all four disenfranchised plaintiffs are county residents, including a 69 year old woman battling Parkinson’s.

When an absentee ballot is cast it is placed in a sealed and signed envelope.

The signature on that envelope is then compared with one on file on an individual’s voter registration card.

If it’s a match, the ballot is deemed genuine and counted.

If it’s a mis-match, the ballot is rejected.

“And the poll workers who are charged with this responsibility we’ve not been able to find any county which spends any time training them in signature analysis,” said Julia Vaughn with Common Cause Indiana in a telephone interview with 16 News Now. “For many of us, as we age, our signature changes, things like a disability. One of our individual plaintiffs suffers from Parkinson’s disease.”

Court documents show St. Joseph County had the highest absentee ballot rejection rate in the 2018 general election-at least of the 18 counties compared.

In all, in that election 39 absentee ballots were rejected—or .7 percent of all mailed absentee votes cast in St. Joseph County.

The idea for the lawsuit actually grew out of the recount of the 2018 Democratic primary race for St. Joseph County Sheriff.

15 absentee ballots in that race were rejected initially, but included by a recount commission.

The result was a 14 vote margin of victory.

While the St. Joseph County Election Board was initially named as a defendant in the suit, it was later dismissed, leaving Indiana’s Secretary of State as the lone defendant.

Attorney Peter Agostino said local election officials were simply following state law, albeit law that has since been found to be constitutionally flawed.

“You get to address the signatures, so the court decision is not taking that ability away. If you’re going to reject a ballot the person whose ballot you’re rejecting has to be notified and given a chance to fix whatever issue is there,” Agostino said.

Julia Vaughn added, “That’s what should have been happening all along. Unfortunately it wasn’t and it’s taken a federal court order to make it happen.”

Indiana’s Secretary of State must now decide whether to appeal the ruling or to make the changes.

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