Stateline Story

Indiana Senate Advances Election Reform Bills

The Indiana Senate unanimously passed a $6 million bill Tuesday (3/6) to computerize and centralize the state's voter registration system. Earlier in the month, the Senate approved another measure to establish a fund to upgrade voting systems statewide.

State lawmakers around the country have approved funds for task forces and studies of voting. But the progress of the bills in Indiana represent the most significant and thus far most successful -- post-Florida election reform efforts in state houses this year.

Sen. Sue Landske , R-Cedar Lake, chairwoman of the Senate Legislative Apportionment and Elections Committee, said the fund would not cover the costs of a complete overhaul of the voting systems used in the state. But she said it would nonetheless help move Indiana's elections "into the 21st century."

"We really didn't have the problems here that they had in Florida. And we've been able to avoid those for the most part," Landske said.

Sen. Becky Skillman , R-Bedford, the sponsor of both bills, said the ideas behind the legislation have been under consideration in the legislature for years. Florida provided the necessary impetus for reform.

"This may be the single most important election reform our state could adopt," Skillman said. "The voter registration file is an issue that has been around for at least nine or 10 years. With updating voting technology, there have been many county election clerks warning county executives that there could be major problems. Now, in light of what happened [in Florida], those decision makers are listening."

The legislation closely followed the creation in February of a bipartisan task force by Gov. Frank O'Bannon and Secretary of State Sue Ann Gilroy to look the integrity of the state's voting system. Skillman serves as one of four lawmakers on the 16-member task force.

With a mixed bag of punch cards, optical scanning machines, touch screen systems and lever machines, Indiana does not have a cohesive "election system." But the state does have strict rules about how ballots should be counted and what constitutes a vote, including rules clearly absent in Florida governing the determination of chads.

The two bills, if approved by the House and signed into law, would fund a new computerized registration system that would automatically eliminate duplicate registrations and non-eligible voters from rolls. Gilroy told The Indianapolis Star last week that the new system would remove the nearly 20 percent of voters listed on the state registry that are "bogus."

Thad Nation, a spokesman for O'Bannon said the governor would take a close look at the bills, both of which still need approval from Indiana's House. Skillman said she has received strong indications from her work on the task force that the governor supports both measures.

"The Florida experience made the public and the politicians pay attention to these issues," Nation said. "You fix the roof when the sun is shining, not when it's raining."

That view has not been universally adopted, however. Measures to improve voting machines have failed in Mississippi and North Dakota so far this year. Legislatures in 19 other states will continue to debate similar issues in the coming months.