Thousands of Marion County ballots unreturned in primary election, roughly 1,800 rejected

A confluence of challenges spurred by the coronavirus pandemic left many Marion County votes uncounted after June’s primary election. 

Long lines at voting centers. An unprecedented number of absentee ballots sent by mail. And a shortage of poll workers to help sort through it all. 

In the end, a total of 1,804 absentee ballots were rejected, mostly because they came in past the noon June 2 deadline, according to the clerk’s office.

Thousands of other ballots that were requested and mailed to voters — part of an up to $1 million effort to encourage voting from home during the pandemic — were never returned.

The rocky primary may be just a preview of the tempest to come in November, when the country faces a critical presidential election.

The Marion County election board plans to map out a smoother general election process. Exactly how it will do so, however, remains unclear. 

“I can affirmatively say that voters should anticipate more election day vote center locations,” said Russell Hollis, deputy director of the Marion County clerk’s office. “They should expect many more. But it’s just too early in the process for me to say what that number would be.”

Thousands of ballots left unreturned

Across the nation, the primary elections forced states to reckon with voting by mail — a process that has taken years to perfect in other states. Indiana and other states had to nail down a widespread vote-by-mail system in a matter of months. 

The results leave room for improvement. In Marion County, 99,291 of the roughly 128,000 absentee ballotssent out were returned. Roughly one out of five were not. 

How many voters did not send ballots back or how many ballots may have been lost in the mail is unclear. 

Voting troubles: Marion County voters report issues with absentee ballots

The Marion County election board and staff are still in the beginning stages of debriefing from the primary election and determining best solutions for November, Hollis said.

Amid the pandemic the county reduced the number of voting centers from over 250 to just 22, a move that prompted long lines on election day. In November, the county plans to add more — though how many is uncertain. 

And while the election fiasco did devolve into some partisan finger-pointing — Democratic Clerk Myla Eldridge and Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson exchanged jabs over problems in public letters —  Mayor Joe Hogsett argued for collaboration.

“I do think that there’s agreement that come fall, we want to emphasize mail-in balloting,” Hogsett said. “But we need to learn the lessons that this primary have taught us, and I’m absolutely confident that when we are collaborating and working together, we can have an even better process, a more effective process, a more efficient process than the one that perhaps we experienced in June.”

Eldridge blamed issues partially on the state, noting that the county has had to prepare for both an in-person and mail election despite her preference to vote entirely by mail. The election division was initially limited to just 10 members processing absentee ballot applications, she noted, which ultimately came in at more than 127,000, or over 20 times the 6,000 applications processed in the 2016 primary. 

But Lawson argued that the county had plenty of time to prepare for the election.

A spokesman for Lawson’s office said she was unavailable for comment for this story. 

A national struggle

Marion County is not alone in experiencing election troubles.  

Similar situations have unfolded in other states, including Georgia and Wisconsin, as the country grapples with elections amid the pandemic. 

States have scrambled to extend primary election deadlines and expand absentee voting, among other measures. 

Groups such as the National Association of State Election Directors have issued guidance on how to manage an increase of ballots, verify signatures and expand absentee ballot applications. 

In Marion County, one election worker recalled the overwhelming scene at Marion County’s Election Service Center in the days leading up to the primary.

“It seemed like the system was completely overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots that had to go out,” Tony Wiederhold previously recalled to IndyStar. “Part of it was just there weren’t enough people there to do all the steps that were required to get ballots out in a timely manner.”

Government watchdog Common Cause Indiana notes the need for Marion County and the rest of Indiana to get things in order before the November election. 

“Counties need to know now what they’re going to be faced with in November,” Julia Vaughn, the group’s policy director, previously told IndyStar. “So decisions need to be made at the state level as quickly as possible so that counties have the chance to get this right.”

Call IndyStar reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey at 317-444-6175 or email her at apakharvey@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmeliaPakHarvey.