PI Original Josh Kalven Saturday October 4th, 2008, 5:41pm

Voter Suppression Battle Brewing In Northwest Indiana

It appears that Lake County, IN may be the latest arena in the GOP's effort to suppress the vote in swing states

First some basics.  Under Indiana election law, early voting can only take place in a county clerk's main office.  This clearly could be problematic in areas ...

It appears that Lake County, IN may be the latest arena in the GOP's effort to suppress the vote in swing states

First some basics.  Under Indiana election law, early voting can only take place in a county clerk's main office.  This clearly could be problematic in areas where the county seat is far in distance from the most heavily populated parts of the county.  Therefore, the law gives each board of elections the authority to approve early voting centers elsewhere in their county.

Lake County's geography provides the perfect argument for these "satellite" polling places.  The county seat, Crown Point, is the 7th most populous city in the county (pop. 24,000) and centrally located.  Meanwhile, three of the four biggest municipalities -- Gary (pop. 96,000), Hammond (pop. 77,000), and East Chicago (pop. 30,000) are all located at the northern edge of the county, along Lake Michigan.  Together, these towns hold more than 40 percent of the county's residents. (To the right is a population density map of Northwest Indiana.  Lake County is visible in the upper left corner and you can see that the most populous areas are crammed at the top.) Moreover, Gary and Hammond are the fifth and sixth largest cities in the state.

It's in the city clerk's offices in these three towns that the Democratic members of the Lake County Board of Elections wanted to open up satellite voting centers.  After all, it's about an hour roundtrip drive to Crown Point from any of them.

But on September 24, the two Republican members of the elections board voted against doing so.  Their explanation is that Lake County Democratic chairman Rudy Clay made an agreement early in the year with GOP chairman John Corley to allow satellite voting during the state's presidential primary, but not during the general election.  Why wouldn't the Republicans want residents of these three towns to have easier access to early voting in the weeks leading up to this historic election?  Because they're heavily minority, heavily low-income, and heavily Democratic.

Following the 3-2 party-line vote, the board of elections proceeded with its plan to open up the voting centers.  Meanwhile, the county Republican Party argued that state law requires each board to unanimously approve any satellite voting and pledged to mount a legal challenge.  The Democrats countered that voting centers located in city clerk's offices -- which are part of the county government -- don't fall under the statute cited by the GOP.  This is where things get murky.  From the Post-Tribune:

At the center of the argument is a 1993 state law creating the combined Lake County Election and Voter Registration Board, a five-member body which now administers elections in the county.

The county clerk is in charge of elections in 91 of the state's 92 counties.

Not in Lake County, though.

According to Republican Election Board attorney Bruce Lambka, satellite voting offices can be set up without a vote in county clerk's offices only in counties where the clerk is in charge of elections.

"In one county, incidentally this one, we vote in the Office of Elections and Registration," Lambka said.

Representatives of Secretary of State Todd Rokita declined to offer an interpretation of the law.

Rokita, by the way, is a Republican.

Yesterday, the GOP's legal challenge made its way to federal court, where Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen scheduled a hearing for next Thursday and convinced the Democrats not to begin early voting at the three locations until he ruled on the temporary restraining order filed by the Republicans.

After the recent evidence of voter suppression in Michigan, you can be sure more attention will be paid to this issue in the coming week, perhaps even at the national level.  The hearing will ultimately focus on competing interpretations of state election law and the GOP leaders will tell the press that their actions are driven by legal considerations, not political ones. But it's important to remember the critical moment in this whole process: when the two Republican members of the board voted against the additional voting centers, each located in heavily-populated, minority-rich areas. That tells you all you need to know about their motivations.

RELATED: Blue Indiana has some more detail on the legal maneuvering this week.

We also have these updates:

October 6: Judge Rules That Lake Co. Satellite Voting Can Commence

October 6: Lake Co. Board Of Elections Plans To Wait On Federal Ruling (UPDATED: Federal Hearing Moved Up)

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