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Turnout in Madison County fails to reach 2016 levels; voters report frustrations with lines and reduced voting machines

By STEVEN MURREY

Despite early projections, voter turnout in Madison County failed to reach 2016 levels.

Madison County Clerk Olivia Pratt predicted last week that turnout would top the 54,916 votes cast in the 2016 general election.

“Overall, we think we’ll see a much higher turnout than previous elections,” Pratt told the Call-Leader last week.

According to numbers provided by the Madison County Election Board, 52,274 votes were cast. There are 91,351 registered voters in the county.

Pratt was not alone in her predictions for higher turnout. Ludy Watkins, chairwoman of the Madison County Democratic Party, estimated a turnout of 65 to 70 percent. Russ Willis, chairman of the Madison County Republican Party, predicted a new turnout record could be set.

In 2016, 43,935 county residents voted in person on election day. This year, that number fell to 23,931, due in part to the increase in early and absentee voting. Despite the reduced turnout, voters experienced unprecedented wait times.

Voters in Alexandria, Frankton, and Anderson reported wait times of five to seven hours. Some voters were still in line after midnight. Many voters attributed the wait to a dramatic reduction in the number of voting machines. Several voters reported seeing voters leave lines due to long wait times, which some are calling a form of voter suppression.

Julia Brunsman, 30 of Frankton, voted at Florida Station Church of God. She waited for four and a half hours.

“Time is money, and we spent four and a half hours waiting.  It wasn’t free, and it wasn’t fair,” said Brunsman. “It genuinely makes me sick to my stomach to think of the people who couldn’t vote. One could argue it is unreasonable to wait that long.”

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Hundreds of voters were still in line at Florida Station Church of God a half hour before polls closed Tuesday.

Ashley North, 31 of Elwood, said she was unable to vote because of the long wait times.

“I didn’t have time to wait in the long lines,” North said. “I tried four different times. The line was out the door or down the hallway of the city building each time.”

Pratt said Thursday that the county had previously had 400 voting machines. This year, the county had only 170. She explained that the county needed to purchase new machines this year because the old ones were 13 years old. She said some were falling apart and were unusable and that new machines were required to print paper receipts.

Pratt said the County Election Board had proposed adding vote centers throughout the county. The centers would have allowed residents to vote at any satellite location in the county, similar to the satellite centers used for early voting in Elwood and Pendleton. She said when the idea was first proposed, everyone was on board.

“Something changed,” said Pratt of Madison County Commissioners Kelly Gaskill and Mike Phipps’s support for the plan. “They never publicly explained their reasons, but we know it was political.”

Pratt said that as the deadline approached, Gaskill and Phipps retracted their support for the move to become a vote center county.

County Commissioner John Richwine said he called two special meetings after the County Council had approved funding for the vote centers. He said Kelly Gaskill and Mike Phipps did not attend the first special meeting and that Gaskill did not attend the second meeting. Richwine said Phipps attended that meeting but did not cast a vote on the proposal.

Pratt said she called the state and explained the situation, stating the county did not have enough machines for the November election.

“They said if we did not get more equipment, we would likely have the longest wait times in the state,” said Pratt. She said the Election Board passed a resolution to order the required equipment even with the objections from Gaskill and Phipps, but received threats of legal action. She said a lawsuit would have further cost taxpayers.

“I know some people left,” Pratt said of the long lines Tuesday. “Some didn’t go, to begin with.”

Richwine said when he cast his vote at Pipe Creek Fire Department, he witnessed one young woman leave.

“She looked like a waitress, and after about fifteen minutes, she gave up. Some people can’t afford to wait for four hours,” said Richwine.

Richwine said his son was unable to vote due to the lines, as he had to get back to work.

“People have every right to be angry,” Pratt said. “This never should have happened. It was easily preventable and I’d be happy to provide documentation for everything I’ve said to anyone who asks.”

“This should not have happened. This did not have to happen,” Richwine said.

Gaskill and Phipps did not respond to the Call-Leader’s request for comment.

COVID CONCERNS

As previously reported, volunteers outside of the Pipe Creek Fire Department said they witnessed several voters leaving due to COVID-19 concerns. There were complaints about a lack of social distancing and people inside without masks.

One voter who wished to remain anonymous said he waited almost three hours to vote early in Elwood.

“There was no social distancing,” he said.

Cameron Rogers, 26, said he voted at East Main Street Christian Church. He said he saw voters without masks, as well as candidates.

“I was worried about the spread of COVID,” Rogers said. “It could have increased the spread.”

For the past several weeks, COVID-19 cases in the county have risen dramatically. An outbreak at Elwood Health and Living infected approximately 100 individuals. On Wednesday, Mayor Todd Jones declared a local state of emergency for the second time, citing two city workers who tested positive for the virus earlier this week. The emergency order has shut the building down to the public until Nov. 14. Jones said voters were not exposed to the positive employees. The Tin Plate also announced Wednesday that the restaurant would be closed after employees tested positive.

Madison County Health Administrator Stephanie Grimes said that the county could see yet another spike in cases from areas in which voters lined up indoors.

The health department announced Wednesday the county would move to orange on the Indiana COVID Dashboard after an increase in the positivity rate.

On Thursday, Madison County reported 109 new COVID-19 infections, the highest single-day total to date. Since March, 3,080 county residents have tested positive for the virus, and 105 have died.