Commissioners call for state investigation of Porter County election
November 13, 2018
After hearing first-hand stories from poll workers about the chaos that ensued on Election Day in Porter County for the midterm elections, the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday asked the county attorney to request an Indiana Secretary of State’s Office investigation and for the state agency to ask for an inquiry by the Indiana State Police.
The move follows a request by commissioners on Nov. 7 for the FBI to investigate “scores of alleged violations of Indiana election law made by poll workers voters and the public” received by the commissioners. Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, and county attorney Scott McClure met with the FBI the following day for two hours. There has been no word yet on whether the FBI will initiate an investigation.
The various agencies asked to investigate the election “look at things differently and have different roles,” said Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, adding the FBI can investigate voter fraud and suppression, while the state agencies can determine whether state code and processes were followed. “We’re hoping to cover all the bases.”
Election Day in Porter County was rife with problems, including delayed election results that came in three days late, 12 precincts that stayed open later than planned because they did not open on time, and absentee ballots not being distributed to precincts to be counted by the time the polls closed.
The day also included two court hearings in a battle to keep open the polling places that did not open on time.
Commissioners President Jeff Good, R-Center, who was on the ballot in a successful bid for a second term in office, had to recuse himself from the process because he was on the ballot.
“I want to thank the board for stepping up during the crisis,” he said, adding those responsible for the problems “ran from the mic,” an apparent reference to Clerk Karen Martin, who was unreachable as the problems unfolded.
Shortly after preliminary election results were released Friday, commissioners and members of the county council asked Martin to resign; she has refused. Martin, one of two Republican members of the election board, is completing her second and final term as clerk, per state statute; she made an unsuccessful run for county auditor and lost to incumbent Vicki Urbanik, a Democrat.
“It really didn’t fall under this board’s responsibility to do a lot of what this board did” in the aftermath of the election, Good said. “For a guy being on the ballot, you have no idea what it meant to me to see people step up and do what needed to be done.”
Biggs said it was “very embarrassing” to see what the county went through on Nov. 6, and the county has “always avoided those types of headlines.”
“We are not going to allow this to happen again,” Biggs said. “There are very few things that could happen that could damage this county’s reputation as what happened Tuesday.”
The election board meets at noon Friday to certify the results and determine the fate of 250 ballots cast during the election, including those cast by voters the morning of Oct. 27 in Portage that weren’t properly initialed by poll workers; any ballots set aside during normal polling place hours on Election Day; and ballots cast at 12 precincts that remained open after regular voting hours ended at 6 p.m.
The County Council District 1 race hangs in the balance, as Democrat Bob Poparad, seeking a return to the council, has a 15-vote edge over Republican incumbent Andy Bozak, the council president.
Valparaiso residents John Vigilante and Kathy Sipple, who served as poll workers, requested an ad hoc committee going forward that includes poll workers from both parties with various levels of experience so their voices could be heard as county officials come up with solutions.
“We really appreciate your positive and proactive approach,” Blaney said, adding next year will see a new clerk in Democrat Jessica Bailey and changes in the makeup of the rest of the three-member election board.
Portage Township resident Robert Haywood noted he worked a 20-hour day on Election Day and, as a veteran of many past elections, said it typically takes six weeks to get paid for working the polls. He asked commissioners and Urbanik to expedite the process.
Biggs said he has talked to three members of the council about increasing pay for Election Day because of the unusual circumstances, though the final decision would rest with the council.
“Thank goodness you all did not jump ship,” he said. “For me, that needs to be rewarded.”
Urbanik said she already has a plan in place to fast track pay for poll workers but needs payroll data from the clerk’s office, which she has not yet received.