Judge: Ind. Early Vote Centers Can Stay Open

State judge: all ballots should be counted except in the case of voter fraud.

Oct. 22, 2008— -- An Indiana state judge who in the last few days toured three controversial early voting centers in the state's Lake County has rejected a request from Republican county officials to close the centers.

In an order released today, the judge, who was trailed by cameras as she visited the voting centers, said the Lake County Election Board is "enjoined from terminating the operation of in-person absentee voting currently being conducted" in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, Ind. The three cities, which account for 40 percent of Lake County's population, are heavily favored to support Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential election.

The controversy began last September when the county's Democratic-controlled election board voted 3-2 to open additional voting places for early in-person absentee voting to accommodate voters in the three cities, which have predominantly nonwhite populations. Indiana law allows absentee ballots to be filed in person or by mail.

The two Republicans on the board voted against the measure, arguing that in-person voting in the county seat, Crown Point, was sufficient. Crown Point is predominately white.

The judge ruled today that "it is not reasonable or fair" to allow voters residing close to Crown Point to vote while at the same time forcing "many more voters" in the three other cities that are approximately 45 minutes away to "make an onerous and lengthy round trip."

It was unclear whether the Republicans on the election board will appeal today's ruling.

Despite the legal wrangling, the centers were allowed to stay open while state and federal courts heard arguments on the matter. According to statistics tracked by the Indiana secretary of state, there have been 10,034 total absentee ballots filed since voting began Oct. 14.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which filed suit along with county Democrats, said today, "This is another great victory for the hard-working families of Indiana and it's encouraging news for the nation as a whole."

"Our country is at a critical point in history this election," Stern said in a statement. "The stakes could not be higher. When the economy is collapsing, Hoosiers are losing their healthcare, losing their jobs and even losing their homes. Everyone needs a fair chance to make their voices heard."

Some Indiana Voters Prefer In-Person Voting

Some voters prefer to cast absentee votes in person because voting centers provide staff who can cut down on the chance of voting error.

"More states are offering absentee balloting now," says Terri Ennis, a senior fellow of election law at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. "It's in response to the inconvenience of 2004 with long lines," she said. "It's more convenient."

But since the landmark Bush v. Gore case transformed the 2000 presidential election, there has been an increase in the use of litigation to attempt to affect the outcome of elections.

"On the one hand, it's good to do this litigation as far in advance of the election as possible," Ennis says. "Every piece of election litigation always boils down to access versus fraud prevention."