Several Vigo County organizations say a potential reduction in voting sites and voting hours represents an effort to suppress the democratic voting process.
Members of Forward Together Terre Haute, League of Women Voters of Vigo County, the Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP, the Student Coalition for Social Justice as well as Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County, on Monday stood in front of the Vigo County Courthouse to advocate for more vote centers and longer vote hours for the 2018 election.
The groups expressed concern the Vigo County Election Board this week may reduce the number of early vote centers in Vigo County from nine sites to six sites and voting centers for primary and general election could be reduced from 18 down to 12 or 10 sites in 2018.
However, the county election board president says the board is first working toward finding locations that are compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, not with reducing the number of vote centers.
“The Election Board is planning to reduce the number of vote centers in Vigo County. We feel that this is suppression of the vote. We think we should have more voting centers and not fewer,” said Cathy McGuire, a member of Forward Together Terre Haute, founded in the fall of 2014.
“The election board refused to reinstate the voting site at Indiana State University for the last election [in 2016] despite the fact the university was willing to pay for any cost to the county in order to have a polling site that was convenient for students, faculty and other members of the public,” McGuire said.
“Indiana has one of the lowest percentages of voter participation in the nation. Decreasing the number of convenient voting centers will not help this situation,” McGuire said.
Voter centers were established in Vigo County in 2013 in lieu of voting at more than 80 individual precincts. Before that, the county in 2008 began using “satellite locations” as a way to encourage people to vote early.
Kara Anderson, president of the county election board, said the board is currently is focused on finding early voting sites “that are centrally located and handicapped accessible. Depending on what goes with them, within a budget, will determine how many vote centers we have as we only have so much equipment.”
“It is still early in the process,” Anderson said. “Talking about reductions is way premature until we nail this down,” Anderson said of obtaining ADA-compliant locations. “We have some vote centers that are not meeting code. We are looking to enhance that for more convenience and ADA compliance.”
“Nothing could be polar opposite” to the board’s goals then cutting early vote centers and voting times, Anderson said. “Pre-voting [early voting] is increasing, and we have to continue to improve on that,” Anderson said.
Anderson said since the county went to a vote center system in 2013 for the 2014 election, “early” or absentee voting has been conducted one week prior to election day. The county courthouse is open 28 days prior to the election for absentee voting, she said.
The groups said they plan to demonstrate in front of the courthouse today from noon until 1 p.m. and again on Thursday, inside the courthouse at 12:30 p.m.
The Election Board meets at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the County Clerk’s Office.
Robbie Piper, secretary of the League of Women Voters of Vigo County, said the league “believes that voting is a fundamental right that must be guaranteed for all citizens. Voting centers must be located so that all citizens have reasonable access to at least one [vote center],” Piper said.
“Vigo County voter turnout in the 2016 general election was the third lowest in the state,” Piper said. “It will be lowered even further if early vote centers and early voting time are reduced by the Vigo County Board of Elections.”
Sylvester Edwards, president of the Greater Terre Haute NAACP, said the local, state and national organizations “oppose any reduction of voting sites, limitation of days and hours.
“In a Democracy, everyone has the right to vote. ... When you eliminate the number of days, hours and number of polling places, this is a slap in the face and a black eye to Democracy in this country,” Edwards said. “We are asking for the community to make a stand ... to extend the days and hours and places” to vote.
Chase Mechan, a freshman student from Paoli at Indiana State University and member of ISU’s Student Coalition for Social Justice, said he will work to petition to have a vote center placed on the campus.
“I think it is important that [site] be reinstated and no other place is eliminated. We all very much care about voting and it is a fundamental right,” he said.
Andre Kummerow, a member of Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County, said the group “sees a reduction in the number of polling places .. as a way to suppress voters and we just don’t see it as anything but that,” he said.
Vigo County Clerk Brad Newman, a member of the election board, said the board is working to improve voting with better facilities.
“We are looking for a bigger facility and better placement,” Newman said. Bigger facilities could hold more people and require fewer vote centers.
“I think the county jail and anti-establishment [sentiment] is carrying over. It is an open meeting and no one is trying to restrict freedom of speech. I encourage them to join us Thursday,” Newman said.
“I don’t think this election board is about Republican or Democrat but is about what is best for Vigo County. As soon as we can get rid of labels, there will be less animosity, especially in this community which is considered old-school Democrat. My chief deputy is Democrat. I try to put the best people in place,” Newman said.
“We are still making progress and doing everything we can think of. We will listen with an open mind,” Newman said. “No one in those groups has met with me, and I hope they do show so they know the whole story.”