Virus prompts state Democrats to online convention

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Democratic Party announced plans Tuesday to switch to a virtual state convention because of the coronavirus outbreak, and more talks are underway among political leaders about whether to make more changes to how voters cast their ballots this year.

The Democratic decision concerning the June convention comes after state Republican and Democratic party leaders agreed last month with GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb to delay Indiana’s primary election from its scheduled May 5 date until June 2. All voters are also being given the option of submitting mail-in primary ballots as state officials lifted all previously required excuses.

State Democratic Chairman John Zody said switching to an online convention was the “safest way” to bring together the party’s some 2,500 delegates. Those delegates will vote by mail-in ballots for the party’s contested attorney general nomination.

The state election commission is scheduled to meet on April 22 and could discuss adopting an entirely vote-by-mail primary. The COVID-19 illness has killed nearly 400 people in Indiana over the past month and led to a statewide stay-at-home order.

State election officials have said they still plan sites for early in-person voting in all 92 counties and to have polling locations open on the day of the primary.

Zody said Democratic and Republican leaders were discussing how to conduct the primary and that county officials need directions soon.

“We still believe that vote by mail is the safest and best option,” Zody said. “But short of that we are looking at what other ways we can accommodate in-person voting.”

Republican Party leaders are still planning to hold their convention in Indianapolis on June 20, party spokesman Jake Oakman said.

“However, party leadership is discussing contingency plans should we need to make changes,” said Oakman, who declined to comment about possible primary election changes.

The contentious fight over holding Wisconsin’s primary last week symbolized what could become a high-stakes, state-by-state legal fight over how voters can safely cast their ballots if the coronavirus outbreak persists into the November election. Democrats are arguing for states to be ready to shift to much greater use of absentee and mailed ballots, while Republicans are raising the specter that such elections could lead to increased fraud.

The Democratic National Convention has been pushed back from mid-July until August, but Joe Biden has said an online convention might be necessary.

Holcomb said Monday he was in ongoing talks with Republican and Democratic leaders on how to proceed but didn’t commit to any particular actions.

“My standard is our elections need to be safe and they need to be secure,” the governor said. “We want to make sure that the steps we take set the right precedent.”

Indiana has no challenged races for statewide elected offices in this year’s primary although multiple candidates are seeking nominations for the congressional seats being given up by Democratic Rep. Pete Visclosky and Republican Rep. Susan Brooks. State legislative seats and county offices are also on the primary ballot.

The Democratic and Republican state delegates will decide contested races for the Indiana attorney general nominations.

Two Republicans are challenging Attorney General Curtis Hill’s re-election bid as he awaits a decision from the state Supreme Court over whether he’ll face disciplinary action over allegations that he drunkenly groped four women.

Both Democratic attorney general candidates — State Sen. Karen Tallian of Ogden Dunes and former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel — said they supported their party’s switch to mail-in balloting for their race. Health care business executive Woody Myers is unopposed in the primary for the party’s gubernatorial nomination and is expected to pick his running mate.

Weinzapfel said steps should be taken now to modify the November election in order protect both public health and voting rights.

“I think people are still going to be concerned about their health,” Weinzapfel said. It’s going to take months of planning in order to do a vote by mail election in November, but I think we have to start taking those steps today.”

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