Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County political parties in standoff over early voting in Valpo

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The issue of having an early voting location in Valparaiso was not solved Friday, instead tensions were magnified between Democrat and Republican party members at the special Porter County Election Board meeting which at times gave way to raucous shouting matches.

Both sides say they want the same thing: to have fair elections and to provide convenience for the voter. However, neither side accepts the other’s proposal for a compromise.

The board on March 14 approved early voting sites at the County Government offices in Portage and Chesterton Town Hall, but no agreement could be reached on a location in the County Administration Building. The conflict arose because Democratic County Clerk candidate Kathy Kozuszek works as the Democrat Director in the Voters Registration office where early voting has traditionally taken place for the last 20 years or so.

Establishing a satellite voting location requires unanimous support from the board.

Kozuszek is running against incumbent County Clerk Karen Martin, a Republican, in November’s general election.

Friday’s meeting came at the behest of the County Commissioners who asked Martin to gather the election board members together. Martin serves on the board along with Republican member David Bengs and Democratic member J.J. Stankiewicz, both of whom were absent Friday. In proxy were Kenard Taylor for Bengs and Katrina Spence for Stankiewicz.

Spence objected to the meeting saying she only learned of the meeting a few hours prior by reading the newspaper and because she had questions for the board’s attorney Ethan Lowe, who was also absent.

“I don’t believe the board can go forward without its attorney,” Spence said. She asked what the purpose was for rushing the meeting.

Taylor said the board has been charged by the Commissioners to open up a early voting site as soon as possible so word can get out to the public about when and where they can vote.

He also had with him a letter from Lowe saying that Martin as the County Clerk is free to designate the Porter County Courthouse in Valparaiso as the one location of her office where early voting can occur without a vote from the election board.

Martin said she has designated the portion of her office on the first floor of the Courthouse as her location for early voting unless the board can agree on a space in the administration building.

Sitting in for part of the meeting, County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said he would prefer not to have voting at the Courthouse because voters would have to pass through the metal detector which could dissuade some from voting.

Evans said the Voters Registration Office would not work because he alleged the law does not allow a candidate, in this case Kozuszek, to be in the voting area. He offered for voting to take place in the upstairs meeting room (no. 307), the second floor rotunda or the side room to the Commissioner’s Chambers.

Spence said she does not think that there is a state statute that specifically bans candidates from being in a voting place, but it does ban electioneering. She said if her fellow board members wouldn’t accept the voters registration office, she proposed using the rotunda on the first floor near the health department or the PCADOS classroom a few rooms down. That way, voter registration workers can be nearby if something is needed.

But Taylor and Evans objected, saying the Health Department needs that space and would be bothered by the crowds.

Porter County Democratic Chairman Jeff Chidester, who acknowledged he “doesn’t have a vote in this matter,” said that the turnout for this year’s primary elections is expected to be low and he does not anticipate any large crowds disrupting the health department.

He said in all the times early voting has been held, the department has never made any complaints.

Using the same argument as the Republicans, Chidester challenged the idea of having voting in the side room of the Chambers or on the second floor because County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, who is running for reelection this year, has her office “on the other side of that wall” and that there are meetings going on sporadically in the Chambers that would be bothered by voting.

“It’s all semantics,” Chidester said. “We would like to have voting downstairs. Why are we arguing this when the rotunda downstairs is highly acceptable?”

Evans said it is the Commissioners who are responsible for the administration building and at this time they are only offering the three locations to the election board.

“This was all done in good faith. If you want to disenfranchise the voters, go ahead,” said Evans. “There are three different places you can have early voting in this building -- Room 307, the rotunda or this side room here.”

Taylor adjourned the meeting without any decision made other than that early voting will be offered at the Courthouse. Spence questioned if the move was legal since the law states that only one location of the office of the circuit court clerk can be designated by the Clerk herself and already the election board had decided on the North County Complex in Portage.

Martin said that the location in Portage is not at her office but at the Health Department’s satellite office.

The board did not set a date for when it might meet next to vote again. There is a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 8, the day early voting is scheduled to begin.

Republican Director of the Voters Registration office Sundae Schoon said there is no set deadline for early voting locations to be decided other than by when voting starts.

Kozuszek after the meeting showed members of the press the locations of where the Democrats wanted to have voting on the first floor of the administration building. She pointed out where ballots would be kept and where Democrat and Republican clerks can be stationed to keep a watchful eye over activity.

“I don’t think that’s being unreasonable,” she said.

Martin said holding early voting in the Voters Registration office will have to be ruled out due to a new law that went into effect last July which clearly bans a political party chair or vice-chair from being in a voting area when they are an election candidate. Kozuszek is the vice-chair for the County Democratic Committee.

Meanwhile, Kozuszek presented a response from the Indiana Election Division that states what a voters registration worker should not do while a candidate. The IED advises against electioneering in the voting area, assisting with Election Day canvassing, displaying any kind of political preference or party allegiance and making any statement to discourage potential voters from registering.

 

 

Posted 3/24/2014