Disruption or freedom of speech?

The Brown County Election Board’s Nov. 18 meeting also included a discussion about what kinds of activities are allowed or should be allowed at polling places.

At issue was the petition drive conducted by Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department supporters on Election Day at the Van Buren polling place at the elementary school.

Van Buren Poll Inspector Olivia Toler told the election board that fire department supporters set up outside the playground fence, which is considered to be outside the “chute,” the 50-foot area where voters line up to enter the room where voting is taking place.

On their table was a petition asking township residents to “Please help save your Van Buren Township Volunteer Fire Department.”

“The trustee, elected by township residents, has not paid our department the funds it is due since July 2014, even though our department continues to provide all these services nonstop,” the petition said. “The fire department predicts it will need to close by February 2017 if the trustee fails to pay the taxpayer-funded payments owed very soon.”

The petition asks residents to add their signatures to be delivered to the trustee, ask neighbors to sign, make a donation to the fire department, and “like” the “Van Buren Township Volunteer Fire Department Supporters” Facebook page.

The matter between the fire department and the trustee has been fought in court for more than a year, and both sides are awaiting a key ruling within the next couple weeks.

The state’s 2016 Election Day Handbook lists restrictions on activities and people that can be inside the chute, but does not address activities outside the chute.

“Election sheriffs” are tasked with maintaining order at polling places and directing voters through the chute to the proper checkpoint, the handbook says.

Brown County no longer has election sheriffs, election board members said. That job has been absorbed into the poll inspector’s duties, and at Van Buren, that was Toler.

Brown County Clerk Brenda Woods said the Indiana Election Division was called, and so was a Brown County sheriff’s deputy to watch the situation.

Election board member Rick Kelley, who went out to Van Buren to fix a machine problem, said the board believed that they did not have any control over what was going on outside the chute unless it was disruptive.

“Disruption was potentially what was going on,” he said.

Toler and Van Buren poll worker Vicki Payne had concerns that voters who hadn’t voted in a long time were confused about what the petition was. They were afraid that voters signed it thinking that it was the sign-in for voting, and then when they learned that it wasn’t, were afraid to take their names off on the way out.

“They were interrupting the election process,” said Payne, who is the township trustee the petition refers to. “That had nothing to do with the election, and they were right at the gate outside the fence.”

Woods said that if there was any evidence that voters did not vote because they didn’t want to pass by the petition table, or that they felt harassed, a case could be made for restricting activities outside the chute. But they were wary of making an overarching rule that might restrict freedom of speech.

The board planned to get clarification from the state election division about what is “disruptive behavior” as guidance for future elections.