Brown County Clerk Kathy Smith (left) helps Brown County Absentee Voter Board member Deb Noe log in to the statewide voter registration system May 14 in the main hallway at the Brown County Courthouse. This was the first day the absentee election board was called in to deal with mail-in ballot requests, which have more than tripled from a normal election. Staff photo by Sara Clifford
Brown County Clerk Kathy Smith (left) helps Brown County Absentee Voter Board member Deb Noe log in to the statewide voter registration system May 14 in the main hallway at the Brown County Courthouse. This was the first day the absentee election board was called in to deal with mail-in ballot requests, which have more than tripled from a normal election. Staff photo by Sara Clifford
A photo made the rounds of social media last week: One local woman, two envelopes, both containing blank mail-in ballots addressed to her and postmarked on the same day.

“What’s going on?” asked “Brown County Indiana Republicans,” who posted the photo on their Facebook page. It was shared 371 times. “How many more times has this happened?”

For this particular case, the answer isn’t very clear yet.

But this is not the only time that duplicate ballot requests have come in for a voter, said Brown County Clerk Kathy Smith, a Republican who took office in January 2019.

“I have a lot of names that have come in twice, believe it or not. I believe the last count was around 10,” she said on May 14.

She believes that some of the duplicates occurred when someone called in to request a mail-in ballot, and then, maybe thinking the ballot should have arrived already, made another request online.

“But, she’s the only one that’s received two ballots,” Smith said about the voter in the widely-circulated picture. “We’ve been able to start catching it.”

One of the other duplicate requests came from Shari Frank, the president of the League of Women Voters of Brown County. Smith mentioned during a Brown County Election Board meeting last month that she’d received a second ballot application request from Frank.

Frank, who was on the meeting call, apologized and said she had been testing the state’s online ballot request system, and she must have gone a screen too far without realizing it. She did not actually receive two ballots in the mail because the duplicate request was noticed before that point.

What exactly happened in the other voter’s case isn’t clear yet. The three-member Brown County Election board of Smith, Democrat representative Amy Kelso and Republican representative Mark Williams is investigating. At last week’s meeting, Kelso said the board first needed a written statement from that voter before members could start trying to figure out what happened, and she didn’t have that statement at the time.

The voter who received the duplicate ballot has not been named in a public meeting and specifically requested anonymity, so the newspaper has chosen to grant it, as normally, all voters are anonymous. She will be referred to as “the voter” in this story.

Clerk’s office procedures

Up until May 14, Smith and Deputy Clerk Laura Wert were processing all the mail-in ballot requests, Smith said. This year, amid health concerns from COVID-19, there’s been a record number of them.

Smith had mailed out 653 ballots as May 14, not counting the new requests that had arrived that morning.

In the last presidential election in 2016, less than 200 people voted by mail, Smith said.

Normally, an absentee voter board would have been handling these requests, but that board’s first day work was May 14. Republican Deb Noe, a one-year veteran, and Democrat Julie Cauble, a 10-year veteran, were the board members working that morning.

Kelso said at the May 12 meeting she didn’t know why that board hadn’t been in place to deal with mail-in requests from the beginning, as that’s been the normal process.

“We’ve never had an election that’s been a moving target, either,” Williams said.

A person can request a mail-in absentee ballot in a variety of ways. To get a blank ballot, you have to apply for one first.

You can call the clerk’s office and ask the staff to send a ballot application to you. When that happens, a staff member uses an in-office form to note who was requesting the application. That form is stamped with the date the call was received. Then, those requests are manually entered into the SVRS (Statewide Voter Registration System).

Someone else can ask for a ballot application for you. Often, a person will call in and request an application for themselves and their spouse, Smith said.

Another option would be to go in person to the clerk’s office and pick up an application. You could even fill it out there and return it on the spot if you wanted.

For the walk-in and call-ins, a clerk’s office staff person has to go into the SVRS and enter the ballot request in the program and the date it came in. Smith, Wert and/or the absentee voter board take it from there.

Voters also have the option of logging in to the Indiana Voter Portal at indianavoters.in.gov to request an absentee ballot application. You can either print out the ballot application and sign it, then mail it in or carry it into the courthouse, or fill out the form and submit it entirely online. It can be signed electronically using the signature you have on file from your voter registration if you wish.

Ballot requests that are made entirely online pop into the SVRS, which the clerk’s office staff and the absentee voter board can then see and process.

Last week, an “enhancement” was made to the SVRS program called “Prevent ABS Application Online Duplicates. It “will prevent voters who have an absentee application on file or in the ABS Application Online Hopper from submitting an additional absentee application request,” says a message which Smith pulled up on her SVRS screen on May 14.

“Voters in this status, who attempt to access an online ballot form, will be shown an error message stating that they already have an absentee ballot application on file and if they believe there is an error, they should contact their county election board,” it reads.

“NOTE: Because this enhancement was released to the INSVRS Production environment on the evening of Tuesday, May 12, 2020, your county should be mindful of applications that appeared in the hopper prior to that date,” it says.

A representative from the Indiana Secretary of State’s office did not return a message seeking further explanation of the SVRS system error by deadline.

Is this what happened?

It’s not clear yet whether or not that’s how the voter received two ballots.

“Somebody called in and asked for a ballot with her name on it, and I got one (a request) electronically,” Smith said.

One of the ballots the voter received came back, Smith said.

When the clerk’s office learned about the duplicate ballot the voter received, one was canceled in the SVRS system. “So, if another one was to come through, she can send it, but it won’t get processed,” Smith said.

When a completed ballot arrives, the barcode is scanned, which tells the SVRS that it was received, and the ballot request form is attached to that ballot and put in the ballot box.

The ballot box will be opened and the absentee board will look over those ballots on election day, including checking that any ballot applications that were signed electronically match the signature on the completed ballot envelope. Then, they’ll feed the mailed ballots into a machine to tally the votes.

This is the first time Smith has been charge of a countywide election, though she’d worked on the absentee voter board for years.

She cited the glitch in the SVRS system as the reason why two ballots were able to be issued for the same person, one by phone and one online. The requests “weren’t meeting up” in the system, she said.

During the May 12 election board meeting, Republican Party Chairman Mark Bowman said it wasn’t possible that that’s what happened in this case because the voter doesn’t own a computer or use email.

Another, limited layer of scrutiny is built into the mail-in ballot process. Each blank ballot mailed to a voter must be initialed by both the Republican and Democrat representatives on the county election board or absentee voter board.

When they’re initialing, the Republican and Democrat reps are checking the name on the ballot envelope against the name on the application, the voting precinct, the type of ballot (Democrat or Republican) and the address, Smith said.

Before Noe and Cauble were handling absentee ballots, Smith and Wert were opening the mail and putting the requests through the system and Williams and Michael Fulton were initialing them, Smith said.

Fulton said he initialed ballots while sitting in his car in the courthouse parking lot because of the confined space in the clerk’s office, which he does not feel is a safe area. He never had access to the SVRS system, he said. He was checking that the signatures on the ballot applications matched the signatures on file.

Williams said he was looking for those same things in the stacks of paper he was given.

“I relied on the clerk’s office to put the proper ballot with the application,” he said in an email last week. “My diligence was principally focused on reviewing the package put together by the clerk’s office for each application — assuring that the application was in order and that signatures on the application and on the voter registration record (a photocopy attached to each package by the clerk’s office) were reasonable matches. If I would have had specific questions related to anything housed in SVRS, I would have asked the clerk and she would have checked the system. SVRS was on her computer and she was generally present when I was reviewing the documents.” He said he didn’t specifically remember this voter’s application.

The morning of May 14, their first day on the job, Noe and Cauble were trying to get access to the SVRS system so that they could look at voter records and the status of ballot applications while they were opening the mail, but the system wasn’t working at the time. Smith said it was because of high use.

Smith also said that even though both of the voter’s ballots had the same postmark date, that does not mean that they were both processed on the same day or that they were in the same stack of papers to be checked over and initialed by the election board reps on the same day.

She said had been running a pile of envelopes at a time through the postage machine. When they ran out, she’d run more, and sometimes the envelopes with that day’s postmark weren’t all used on the same day. “That is something we’re not going to be doing anymore,” she said.

“It shouldn’t have ever happened,” she said about two ballot requests being received for the same person and two ballots being sent out. “They came in like that and I didn’t catch it. There’s nothing saying that one didn’t actually get processed a day or two before the other one; they just had the same stamp on them because we’d run them through at the same time.”
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