City of South Bend adds county commissioners to election lawsuit

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The City of South Bend is looking to expand its lawsuit over election laws in St Joseph County, by naming the Board of Commissioners and County Councilmembers as defendants. 

In February, South Bend filed a lawsuit against the Indiana Election Commission claiming a state law which keeps St. Joseph County Commissioners from facing county-wide elections violates the state constitution. 

In 89 of Indiana's 92 counties, county commissioners run for office in a county-wide election. St. Joseph, Lake, and Marion County are the only Indiana counties where voters are restricted to selecting a commissioner in their own district. 

Outline of three St. Joseph County Commissioner districts

Additionally, St. Joseph County voters, "may cast a vote for only one of nine county council members, as compared to voters in nearly every other Indiana county, who may cast a vote for four of seven county council members," according to the lawsuit. 

In the last three US Presidential races, St Joseph County voted Democratic according to numbers from the Indiana Election Division. St. Joseph County voters also leaned left in the 2016 and 2012 Governor's race. Those results suggest if commissioners had to win county-wide races, the three-person board is likely to be controlled by Democrats. 

Right now, all three commissioners are Republicans.

Democrats edged the Republicans in St. Joseph County through the past three US Presidential races

The City argues the special election law has disenfranchised minority voters as a means to ensure Republican control, violating multiple protections under the state constitution, including its Free and Equal Elections clause.  

"The voting rights of every individual residing in St. Joseph County… have been made lesser and unequal compared to the voting rights of (almost) every other voter residing in the State of Indiana," The City argued in a Monday filing

The Indiana Election commission filed a motion to dismiss in April, arguing since the Election Commission doesn't directly administer or enforce state voting law it's the wrong party to sue. It also argues The City hasn't shown any actual harm as a result of the election law, even if it is unfair to Democrats. 

"Plaintiffs imply that because the structure of county government in St. Joseph County is not identical to that of every other county in Indiana, that Plaintiffs’ rights have been infringed. But Plaintiffs do not connect this mere difference in structure to any tangible harm they have suffered," the Election Commission argued. 

"This is not some type of 'fictitious' controversy," The City responded, Monday. "All voters in St. Joseph County... will be left with a lesser and unequal say in their county government as compared to registered voters living in 89 other Indiana counties."

Attorneys for The City have filed an amended complaint to add the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, the St. Joseph County Council, St. Joseph County Election Board, and the individual commissioners and councilmembers as named defendants to settle the issue of whether the correct entity is being sued. While admitting there is a chance for a drawn-out legal battle or settlement, the lead attorney for the City of South Bend, Paul Jefferson said the hope is to resolve the suit before the end of the year. 

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