Commissioners move voter registration to county clerk's office
SOUTH BEND — On Tuesday, all three St. Joseph County commissioners voted to eliminate the county’s board of voter registration and transfer the duties — and the board’s four deputies — to the county’s circuit court clerk’s office.
But this resolution, which was tabled from the commissioners’ meeting on Jan. 17, trims off a provision that had raised questions of fairness, public trust and the appearance of political bias from members of the public at that prior meeting.
As approved, the resolution simply states that the party affiliation of employees doing voter registration duties must be evenly divided, with 50% as Republican and 50% as Democrat.
It no longer provides that, in the case of an odd number of employees, the clerk would be allowed to fill the remaining slot by choosing any employee regardless of political affiliation.
Still, Tuesday’s vote triggered concerns from the audience.
Mike McManus of South Bend said it’s “impossible” for the move to save money, saying to the three Republican commissioners, “We recognize this as a political thing.”
But Donna Hurley came with her three fellow deputies from voter registration — two of them Democrat, two Republican — who each wore black T-shirts that said “We are VR.”
Hurley, a Democrat, and her fellow deputies said they all support the move to the clerk’s office.
“This is a long time coming,” she said. “We are 100% for this merger. We are all bipartisan. We are also family (in sharing their lives).”
Trisha Carrico, a Republican who used to work in voter registration, is now the chief deputy clerk under newly elected Clerk Amy Rolfes. She told The Tribune afterwards that there will be efficiencies gained because the clerk’s office and voter registration often have to work together.
With the change, she said, they will be together rather than in separate offices.
The Jan. 17 meeting:St. Joseph County Commissioners delay vote on abolishing voter registration board
Since the Jan. 17 meeting, Commissioner Derek Dieter said he met with some of the local League of Women Voters members, who’d raised most of the issues over the resolution.
And, in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, the commission drafted a grid of answers to the public’s questions, which can be found online with the packet for the meeting, linked in this story online.
One of the answers addresses cost savings. Altogether, the document states, more than $1 million could be saved over four years. Here’s how that’s broken down: It states that the county has spent more than $250,000 in “litigation settlements and even more in attorney fees” in its “recent history.” Also, by moving from six to four deputies for voter registration, the move would save $67,396 each year. Eliminating the two board member positions, it states, would save another $87,396 annually. None of that includes more than $20,000 per position each year for benefits and taxes.
The document states that the clerk would cross-train employees for both voter registration and clerk duties. But, because voter registration would be their primary duty, the document states, they should be able to answer the detailed questions that often arise.
The League issued a statement Tuesday saying it wasn’t taking a position for or against the resolution. But, while commending the commissioners for listening to and answering questions, the League urged them to delay the vote again Tuesday because its members raised even more questions and concerns after meeting with the officials last week.
“We commend the commissioners for taking public input seriously and encourage them to listen to ongoing concerns by providing at least one more opportunity for public feedback before taking a final vote on the revised resolution,” the League stated.
League member Elizabeth Bennion said some of the lingering questions had to do with the timing of the change. She said some people felt the new clerk may have enough to do without adding voter registration supervision to her job. Others, she said, felt it may be better to do this during a municipal election, when there are fewer registration forms and voters, than a presidential election.
The key concern, she said, was ensuring a fair process that the public trusts.
“It’s tolerable,” Pam Claeys said, who, like the League, urged officials to seek insight from other clerks around the state. “I don’t know why this is being rushed.”
Officials say that St. Joseph is among only three Indiana counties that still have a voter registration board. In 2016, Democrats attempted to move voter registration to the clerk’s office but were met with criticism by Republicans over accountability and transparency.
Dr. Don Westerhausen, a Democrat who lost the commissioner’s election this fall to Carl Baxmeyer, said he also doesn’t believe the change will save money. He cited a “lack of trust” that began last year with “Keygate,” and he noted how Rolfes' campaign in the fall reiterated its claims. He was referring to the allegations by Republicans last year against former Clerk Rita Glenn that she improperly accessed a ballot storage room in the days before the 2022 primary election. Last month, a special prosecutor reviewed the investigation by Indiana State Police and cleared Glenn of any criminal wrongdoing.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Baxmeyer said he accepts that Glenn was cleared of anything criminal, but he said there are still questions about the process, such as, he said, “Why were there multiple keys?”
As for moving the voter registration duties to the clerk’s office, he said the four deputies will be cross-trained so they can help with the office’s other needs during slow times for voter issues.
“This has been kicked down the road for too long,” he said.
South Bend Tribune reporter Joseph Dits can be reached at 574-235-6158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: St. Joseph County commissioners move voter registration board to clerk