Doses of clarity — at least in situations where that is possible to some degree — matter greatly these days.

The state of Indiana can provide some clarity in one aspect of Hoosier life right now.

Voting, the most basic expression of democracy, shouldn’t require a health risk. The state’s elected leaders should allow any registered Hoosier to vote absentee by mail, without an excuse, this November. They did so for last month’s primary election. They should do so for the Nov. 3 general election. It’s the right thing to do.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has not abated. That reality led Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday to pause the state’s reopening. He urged residents to mask up, socially distance, avoid crowds and act responsibly, because “COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.” Many entities are responding accordingly.

Mayors in Evansville and West Lafayette, along with officials in several Indiana counties, have issued face-mask mandates.

The governor gave local leaders a “double thumbs up” for doing so. Kroger, Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot will require customers to wear masks starting next week. Schools are wrestling to find a safe method to educate kids this fall and winter, including enhanced virtual instruction. Vigo County government buildings will remain accessible to the public only by appointment “until further notice,” the commissioners decided Thursday.

All are wise steps. State officials and the Indiana Election Commission can exercise wisdom, too.

The commission on March 25 properly opened absentee voting by mail to all Hoosiers for the Indiana primary, which was delayed from May 5 to June 2 because of virus concerns. Registered voters traditionally would have to provide one of 11 acceptable excuses to apply for an absentee ballot, and have that application approved by a county board.

Hoosiers appreciated the opportunity. More than a half-million of them were able to cast their ballots by mail in the primary, compared to 53,800 in the 2016 primary.

As the primary voting period began, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson encouraged Hoosiers to vote by mail. “One of the most effective ways to protect yourself and keep your poll workers safe is to vote absentee by mail,” she said in May.

The same will be true this fall, if the option exists.

Lawson hasn’t indicated whether she’ll endorse a vote-by-mail absentee option for all registered Hoosiers in the general election. On Wednesday, her communications director, Valerie Warycha, responded to a Tribune-Star request for comment by saying, “We are continuing to monitor the situation and will be in touch when we have more to share.”

In May, Lawson said, “If we need to do [expanded vote-by-mail] in November, we can do it.” Lawson said then that she would study the primary results and use advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health commissioner.

Well, on June 22, the CDC issued its recommendation on November’s election to prevent spread of the highly contagious virus. The CDC suggested that state and local election officials take steps to minimize crowds at in-person polling sites on Election Day by offering “alternative voting methods” such as expanded absentee voting by mail and early voting opportunities.

The CDC’s public health expertise is coupled with a strong track record of reliability in the absentee vote-by-mail process. Thirty-six states offer no-excuse-necessary absentee voting by mail, and five states conduct all-mail elections, according to the nonpartisan National Conference for State Legislatures. Indiana isn’t among the 36, but offered no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all registered voters in this year’s primary.

Hoosier officials should consider the primary’s successful operation, other states’ histories and public health advice. By contrast, President Trump’s baseless campaign rhetoric about widespread vote-by-mail fraud should be disregarded.

Governor Holcomb supported the vote by mail expansion in the primary. He opted to vote in person himself at a Marion County polling site, and said he felt safe.

More than a half-million other Hoosiers felt safer voting by mail, though.

Holcomb discussed the state’s rising COVID-19 cases during Wednesday’s weekly state coronavirus update. Holcomb was asked whether he’d support expanded absentee voting by mail in November. He made no commitment, but left the possibility open. The governor did call for “more Election Day options,” using resources from Homeland Security and the Indiana National Guard.

“And then, if there needs to be more excuses [allowed for absentee voting by mail], we’ll have to talk with the secretary of state,” Holcomb added. “She’s in constant communication, obviously, with the Elections Division, and the two major parties.”

Holcomb was asked about the optimum timing for that decision.

“The optimum time would be so the public has enough time to understand their options, well before the 28 days prior to the actual Election Day, when you could be voting through various other ways. And, so, sometime before that,” Holcomb said, referring to the start of the early voting period. “I will be meeting with the secretary of state on this issue.”

The Election Commission approved no-excuse absentee vote by mail for the primary on March 25 — 69 days before the primary’s date. The Nov. 3 general election date is 108 days away right now.

A prompt decision for the busier general election season would help Vermillion County Clerk Amy Griffin and her staff. “Obviously, we would like to know sooner, rather than later, because any prep work we can do makes it better,” Griffin said Thursday.

Like most Hoosiers, many Vermillion Countians took advantage of the vote-by-mail option. A total of 981 residents mailed in their primary votes, compared to 192 in 2016. That number will be larger for the general election, if mail-in voting is expanded.

“Even with the pandemic, I expect a heavy turnout,” she said.

Thus, Griffin hopes a decision is made by late August or early September, at least, “just to prepare.” Her small staff “learned how to be a little more efficient from the primary” experience, she said.

“We’ll manage. We’ll get it done,” Griffin said. “It’s just review and adapt. It’s definitely uncharted territory. We’re all in this together.”
© 2020 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.