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Concerns raised over election integrity investigation approved by St. Joseph County Commissioners

St. Joseph County Commissioners President Carl Baxmeyer speaks during an Oct. 7 press conference he called to discuss the third-party investigation. Baxmeyer held the briefing 30 minutes before and in the same room as the the county election board meeting.
Jakob Lazzaro
/
WVPE
St. Joseph County Commissioners President Carl Baxmeyer speaks during an Oct. 7 press conference he called to discuss the third-party investigation. Baxmeyer held the briefing 30 minutes before and in the same room as the the county election board meeting.

Last Tuesday, the St. Joseph County Commissioners passed a resolution to set up a third-party review of county election procedures because they say concerns have been raised over election integrity. But that resolution, approved by the all-Republican commissioners in a 2 to 1 vote, is now seeing pushback.

President Carl Baxmeyer said the review is needed to address allegations that the county clerk’s office violated Indiana law by how it stored and processed absentee ballots in the May 2022 primary.

“The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners seek to ensure that voters in St. Joseph County can feel safe and secure in knowing that their vote will count,” Baxmeyer said.

In addition, he said there are concerns over access to the absentee ballot storage room. Under state statutes, the room is supposed to have two locks — one Republican and one Democrat — so both parties know when it is accessed.

But Democratic County Clerk Rita Glenn told the election board in May that there are multiple copies of those keys after Republican member Ben Horvath raised these concerns about the May 2022 primary.

She said staffers wanted to enter the room the day before the primary to continue processing mail-in ballots, but that Horvath — the Republican key holder — wasn’t responding to her calls.

So, Glenn said she enlisted a Republican staff member and used a spare key to enter. In addition, a building engineer has copies of both keys as he needs to access an air conditioning unit that’s in there.

There is also security camera footage of Glenn entering the ballot storage room alone the day before the primary, exiting about 20 seconds later and appearing to throw something away.

She is currently under investigation by the Indiana State Police. Despite that, Baxmeyer said Tuesday his third-party review is needed to ensure transparency and trust in the voting process.

But on Friday, he seemed to walk back the status of that review. During a press conference held in the same room as and just before the county election board meeting, Baxmeyer instead said the election board should fully investigate the allegations — or else.

“If they do not, I will be forced to hire a third-party firm to conduct a compliance review and take any other necessary action,” Baxmeyer said.

He said Horvath resigned as the board’s Republican member because the concerns were not being addressed. The board swore in attorney Tom Dixon as the new Republican member on Wednesday.

But after Baxmeyer finished reading his statement, several people in the room said a commissioner-led review is improper and politically motivated. That includes Mike McManus, a local attorney who ran in the Democratic primary for commissioner this year.

He said the presents a conflict of interest, as Baxmeyer is on the ballot this fall — he won the Republican primary in May and was appointed to replace outgoing Republican commissioner Andy Kostielney in August.

“Why are you launching this investigation just before voting started?” McManus said. “It’s the most shocked I’ve been after 42 years of practicing law. Your personal conflict of interest is abhorrent.”

And he said it’s Horvath who should be investigated for failing to show up to unlock the door back in May.

“He’s the one who started all of this,” McManus said. “Where was Ben Horvath on the day that he was supposed to come and do his official duty by opening the doors along with Rita Glenn?”

Republican commissioner Derek Dieter had voted against the resolution, calling it a political move. In a Thursday statement, Dieter said he agrees with ensuring there’s transparency and trust in the voting process.

But he believes the county should wait for the conclusion of the ongoing Indiana State Police investigation before spending taxpayer money on an independent review.

In addition, Dieter criticized Baxmeyer for giving himself the sole authority to hire an outside firm but not providing any cost estimates. And on Friday, he asked Baxmeyer if Horvath voted to certify the May 2022 primary, despite all these allegations.

“He did,” Baxmeyer said.

“He did,” Dieter said.

“So, why are we here?” McManus said.

“That was prior to a lot of this becoming known,” Baxmeyer said.

But Amanda Konrath, the Democratic member of the county Board of Voter Registration, said that’s not true. According to the meeting minutes, Horvath voted to certify the primary and then brought up his concerns directly afterward.

“After he certified the election, he then brought up the issue with the ballot room,” Konrath said. “It’s all right here, it’s seven pages of minutes. I downloaded this this morning; it took two seconds.”

In a follow up email Friday, Konrath said the resolution is based on “misleading statements, false accusations, and innuendo” and that Indiana law doesn’t give the commissioners authority to investigate elections.

She said that duty is reserved for the election board, which may make the decision to pass information along to the county prosecutor.

And like McManus, Konrath said it’s Horvath who should be investigated. She said under Indiana law, he was required to designate a second person from the party who could unlock the door if he was not available but failed to do so.

Despite all the back-and-forth, Baxmeyer said there’s still a need for his third-party investigation.

“You’re certainly entitled to your opinion,” Baxmeyer said. “My statement is what it is.”

Following the press conference, the election board held its meeting. They conducted a public test of county voting machines and found them all in working order.

St. Joseph County election officials and members of the public test county voting machines on Oct. 8.
Jakob Lazzaro
/
WVPE
St. Joseph County election officials and members of the public test county voting machines on Oct. 8.

And in a 2 to 1 vote, the board approved a resolution under Indiana law delegating power to Glenn’s office to handle absentee ballots for the 2022 election. Republican member Tom Dixon opposed that.

“The backstory behind that is because the election participants — apparently they don’t have enough to do it — and so the clerk’s office can handle more work,” Dixon said. “But I think the right solution to that is to hire more people to keep the bipartisan aspect of counting and managing the ballots completely bipartisan.”

But acting Democratic member Michelle Engel — she was standing in for Charles Leone, who was out of the country — said it won't affect the bipartisan process. Instead, she said it gives Glenn the ability to “do what she can do” under Indiana law.

The St. Joseph County Election board during the Oct. 7 meeting. Democratic County Clerk Rita Glenn is on the left and Republican member Tom Dixon is on the right. Acting Democratic member Michelle Engel is in the center — she was filling in for Charles Leone, who was out of the country until Oct. 8.
Jakob Lazzaro
/
WVPE
The St. Joseph County Election board during the Oct. 7 meeting. Democratic County Clerk Rita Glenn is on the left and Republican member Tom Dixon is on the right. Acting Democratic member Michelle Engel is in the center — she was filling in for Charles Leone, who was out of the country until Oct. 8.

Glenn declined to comment following the meeting. But St. Joseph County Democratic Party chair Diana Hess said she’s served as county clerk for over 30 years.

“And during that time, her integrity has never been questioned — ever,” Hess said. “She has an impeccable reputation.”

She called the third-party investigation a political attack, and said it matches up with nationwide claims of election issues similar to former President Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ over the results of the 2020 election.

“This is just an unfortunate consequence,” Hess said. “We are seeing it here in St. Joseph County and I find it deplorable.”

And later that day, the party said in a press release that Baxmeyer has been served with a litigation hold letter. That requires him to retain all documents, data and information for a lawsuit the party said will be filed over “his attempts to disrupt a fair election process.”

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.