Two Signatures From Calamity

Feb. 18, 2016 — A brewing controversy is underway in the open Indiana Senate race, and it’s over whether literally two petition signatures are valid. Under Indiana election law, candidates for statewide office must file 500 registered voter petition signatures in each of the state’s nine congressional districts to qualify for the primary and general election ballots.

In the northwestern Indiana 1st District (Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville; Hammond; Gary), Republican Senate candidate Todd Young, the 9th District congressman, may be lacking two valid signatures on his submitted petitions, which may be enough to disqualify his candidacy. Young’s petitions are approved in the eight other districts, so his race status is coming down to whether two people on this one list are, or are not, legally registered voters.

Earlier, the county clerks who comprise the 1st District territory jointly and publicly reported that Young filed 501 valid signatures, or one more than the bare minimum. The Indiana Democratic Party, rejecting the Clerks’ report, instead responded by filing a complaint with the four-member Indiana Election Commission -– a body comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans -– claiming that Young only has 498 valid 1st District signatures. To give the challenge more legs, the congressman’s chief GOP statewide opponent, 3rd District US Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Howe; Ft. Wayne), joined the Democrats’ objection.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee leadership, the Indiana Republican Party chairman, and retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R) have all joined in Young’s public defense. But, none of them claimed that all 501 signatures were valid. They each argued from a fairness, public ballot access perspective.

Young is commonly viewed to be the race leader, both in the Republican primary and for the general election. According to year-end financial disclosure reports, Rep. Young has raised $2.9 million for the statewide contest compared to $1.7 million for Stutzman, and just $676,000 for consensus Democratic candidate Baron Hill, the former 9th District congressman who fell to Young in 2010. Stutzman has also had virtually complete turnover of his campaign staff, but should have the grassroots advantage in the race.

Democrats failed to recruit a stronger candidate for this open race despite the success they had with then-Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-South Bend) in 2012, who would go onto defeat then-state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) in what became a nationally covered campaign. Therefore, this year’s general election contest is only considered a long shot for a Democratic conversion. Without Rep. Young as the Republican nominee, however, the outlook could change.

The chances are favorable that the Election Commissioners will rule in Young’s favor when they meet tomorrow. The fact that the local officials ruled he had 501 valid signatures should be enough to keep the two Republican commissioners in line, and that’s all he would need to prevail. On the four-person commission, at least one member of the opposite party must vote in favor to carry any ruling. Nationally, in almost all ballot access situations similar to this, the benefit of the doubt lands with placing the candidate on the ballot and letting the people decide. Such will likely be the end result here.

We’ll see whether this incident energizes the Democratic leadership to make more of an effort for this seat. The fact that Rep. Young is so close to the minimum signature number suggests an implementation weakness within his campaign structure. The situation also gives Stutzman an added boost, which he hopes will change the campaign’s direction.

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