Indiana is one of the key red states that Barack Obama has unexpectedly put in play this year. So it’s not surprising that the GOP is pulling out all the stops to keep it in their column — including, predictably, launching an effort to make it much harder for African-Americans to vote.
In a nutshell, here’s what’s happened so far. The details get a little intricate, but stay with us here:
To win Indiana, Obama would likely need a big turnout from three low-income, heavily African-American cities, in the northern part of Lake County, near Chicago. Those three cities — Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago — together comprise more than 40 percent of the county’s population. But under Indiana law, early voting can take place only in the county clerk’s main office, which for Lake County is in Crown Point, more than an hour’s drive from those cities.
As a result, on September 23, the county board of elections, on a 3-2 party-line vote, approved the opening of satellite early-voting centers in the the three cities. (State law specifically gives elections boards the authority to approve satellite voting centers, and early voting occurred at the centers in advance of the Democratic primary in May.)
But Republicans argue that the decision is unfair to voters in other parts of the state, many of whom would still need to travel to their county seat to vote early. Last week, the county GOP challenged the move, arguing that the centers can only be approved through a unanimous vote of the election board, and asking for a restraining order on early voting. Superior Court Judge Calvin Hawkins — a recent appointee of the state’s GOP governor, Mitch Daniels — issued the order Friday.
Within hours, a federal judge had vacated that decision, and announced a hearing this Thursday to resolve the issue.
Democrats had hoped to open the satellite voting stations today, but have agreed to hold off until the issue is resolved. They have said that if the restraining order is not upheld on Thursday, they plan to open the centers the following day. But whatever happens, almost a week of easier access to the polls for many of the county’s low-income residents has been lost.
Lake County has been in the news already this year in the context of voting. On primary night, the mayor of Gary, an Obama supporter, said publicly that his city had “delivered” for Obama, and did not release vote totals until unusually late in the night, leading to suspicions that the results were deliberately delayed to deny Hillary Clinton the chance to claim victory that night.
But it’s worth pointing out that this may not be the only tactic in the Indiana Republicans’ bag of vote-suppression tricks. The party chair in Marion County — which contains Indianapolis, the state’s other Democratic stronghold — last week refused to rule out using foreclosure records as a basis for challenging voters. A GOP official in Michigan last month was quoted by an online news site saying that similar plans were in the works for one key county in that state, though he later back-tracked amid the ensuing furor, and is now suing the site for libel.
Of course, in recent weeks we’ve seen a range of other possible Republican vote-suppression tactics. Among other examples, in Montana, the state GOP last week used discrepancies in listed addresses to challenge the eligibility of more than 6000 voters, mostly in Democratic-leaning areas — including at least one member of the military who’s about to deploy to Kuwait. The party has now said it plans to issue more challenges.
And a flyer circulating in African-American neighborhoods of Philadelphia last week, whose authorship is unknown, falsely asserted that voters with outstanding warrants or unpaid parking tickets could be arrested at the polls.