INDIANAPOLIS (AP): A federal judge has ruled that Indiana law cannot dismiss mail-in ballots that don’t arrive at county election offices by noon on Election Day.
The decision issued late Tuesday orders state election officials to count mail-in ballots if they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and received by voting offices no later than Nov. 13.
It comes as county election officials are preparing coronavirus precautions for in-person voting on Nov. 3 while handling a surge in mail-in ballots. The Republicans who control state government have largely resisted calls from Democrats and voting rights groups to ease limits on who can cast mail-in ballots and change the noon Election Day deadline for their arrival.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker rejected arguments from state attorneys that extending the deadline would confuse voters, add strain to county election staff and delay the completion of vote counting.
Barker, who was nominated a judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, ruled that thousands of people voting by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic faced having their votes not be counted because of slow mail delivery and other factors. The law’s main exception to the noon deadline has been for ballots sent from overseas by military members.
“Election Day is set by law as November 3, all day on November 3, until the polls officially close,” Barker wrote. “Any voter casting a ballot has the right to do so within that time frame. The noon Election Day receipt deadline disadvantages — indeed, disenfranchises — voters who vote by mail-in ballot by cutting short the time period within which they are permitted to exercise this right even though, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring the timely delivery of their ballots is outside their control.”
The lawsuit filed by Common Cause Indiana and the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP said about 1,500 ballots in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, and 400 in Hamilton County were rejected for this year’s primary election because they arrived after the noon deadline.
Nearly 410,000 Indiana voters had already requested mail-in ballots through Tuesday, some five weeks ahead of Election Day, compared with about 155,000 total mail-in ballots cast for the 2016 presidential election, according to the Indiana secretary of state’s office, which oversees state election policy. About half of the ballots in Indiana’s June primary were cast by mail.
The secretary of state’s office declined to comment on Barker’s ruling. The state attorney general’s office, which is defending the election law, said it was reviewing the decision and considering its next step.