Editorial: State senator proposes new barrier to voting

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

For the past two years, Fort Wayne’s Citilink public transportation system has partnered with AARP Indiana to offer free fares on Election Day to help voting-age residents access a ride to the polls.

Transportation is among the primary barriers to voting, especially among low-income Hoosiers who may not own a car or be able to afford the trip. But such free rides for voters on Election Day would be banned under legislation proposed by state Sen. Gary Byrne, R-Byrneville.

“Senate Bill 187 would ensure all Hoosiers across the state have an equal opportunity to vote,” Byrne said in an email to The Journal Gazette Tuesday. “Not everyone, especially those in rural communities like mine, has access to public transportation, let alone incentives to vote through free public transportation.”

Though AARP’s free-fare program sponsored Election Day rides only in Evansville, Gary, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, 66 public transit systems serve urban, suburban and rural communities throughout the state. In northeast Indiana, rural transit providers can be found in DeKalb, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.

Byrne declined a request for an interview, but he told Axios Indianapolis that early voting and vote by mail offer ballot access to those who would otherwise struggle to reach the polls on Election Day.

That isn’t altogether factual. Indiana is one of just 14 states that requires an excuse to vote by mail. People 65 and older, active military or public safety officers and people with a disability are among those who qualify. If voters’ requests to vote by mail are denied, they still must find a way to the polls, either on Election Day or during early voting.

What’s more, SB 187 is “probably” illegal, said John Metzinger, Citilink’s general manager. Under the Federal Transit Act, federally subsidized transit providers such as Citilink “may not charge more than half of the peak fare for fixed route transit during off-peak hours for seniors, people with disabilities and Medicare cardholders,” according to the Federal Transit Administration.

“The federal government requires agencies like Citilink to provide a reduced fare for senior citizens and people with disabilities,” Metzinger told The Journal Gazette Tuesday. “That said, we think our community has valued sponsored, fare-free rides on Election Day.”

Indeed, Citlink ridership on Election Day, Nov. 7, rose 4.4% above the 5,267 daily ridership average for the month. That’s an additional 231 riders, Citilink’s Marketing & Development Manager Casey Claypool told The Journal Gazette Tuesday. The transit agency also saw a 4.3% increase in ridership for 2022’s general election.

About 8,000 Fort Wayne households don’t have access to a personal vehicle, Metzinger told The Journal Gazette in April, and many don’t drive due to the cost of car ownership, a personal impairment or their age. The average car ownership costs for new vehicles driven 15,000 miles a year were $12,182 in 2023, according to the American Automobile Association, almost $1,500 more than 2022’s study result.

SB 187 was referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government on Jan. 9. Committee Chair Jim Buck, a Kokomo Republican, should table the proposal. Its apparent conflict with the Federal Transit Act should be of particular concern to committee members.

A ban on free or reduced bus fares on Election Day could be applied “equally” throughout the state, but the legislation is not “equitable.” It ignores the specific transportation needs and circumstances of urban, low-income Hoosiers in four of the state’s largest cities.

In a state that already struggles with low voter turnout, lawmakers should be working on ways to make voting more accessible and convenient, and not erecting new barriers to a constitutional right and civic responsibility.