INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Young's name is staying on the ballot for Indiana's open U.S. Senate seat after a tie vote Friday by the state election commission.
The board voted 2-2 along party lines after hearing arguments from attorneys for the state Democratic Party and tea party-backed GOP Rep. Marlin Stutzman that Young's campaign didn't submit enough petition signatures to meet state requirements to appear on the May primary ballot.
The Indiana race could have national implications as Democrats seek a net gain of four Senate seats to retake the majority from Republicans. That would require the Democratic nominee for president to win in November and allow the vice president to break Senate ties. Until the issue over Young's eligibility for the ballot emerged, Republicans were seen as having a good chance of holding onto the seat of GOP Sen. Dan Coats, who is retiring.
The five-hour hearing grew heated at times and devolved into multiple shouting matches between Young's attorney and Vice Chairman Anthony Long, the board's ranking Democrat
"Can you answer the damn question?" Long shouted at attorney David Brooks at one point before the meeting was gaveled back to order.
In the end, Republican board members said they believed Young's campaign relied in good faith on counts of petition signatures entered by county clerks into an unofficial state database. They agreed that a lower number of petition signatures derived from the official hard copies shouldn't cause voters to lose the chance to consider "serious and viable candidates."
"It seems to me if there is any question, we should err on the side of enfranchisement rather than disenfranchisement," said Republican Bryce Bennett, the commission's chairman.
State law requires Senate candidates to submit signatures from 500 registered voters from each of Indiana's nine congressional districts to qualify for the primary ballot.
The state Election Division reported that Young unofficially had 501 signatures in the 1st Congressional District, but Democrats and Stutzman challenged that number. An Associated Press count of Young's petitions found he was three signatures short.
During the hearing, both sides bickered over which signatures should — and shouldn't — be counted. And Brooks pointed out that one page containing two signatures for Young went missing somewhere along the way.
"Stuff happens," Brooks said adding that it's a "mystery" where the page "disappeared to."
At one point Democrats appeared to be gaining traction in their efforts to disqualify several crucial signatures. But then Young's campaign submitted another batch signatures that they argued should be counted despite having been previously disallowed.
That seemed to satisfy the GOP members of the board and doomed the effort, which would have required a majority vote among the four commission members to remove Young from the ballot.
The challenge to Young highlights a schism in the state GOP that pits the chamber of commerce Republican establishment against tea party conservatives, who are backing Stutzman for the nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.
Stutzman attorney Jim Bopp said he believed Young was getting special treatment and that he would consult with Stutzman on whether to appeal the decision in court, a sentiment echoed by Democrats.
"We feel like the rule of law was not followed," Bopp said.
If Young is not allowed on the ballot, Stutzman would be the only GOP candidate left in the field — a possibility that has many Democrats gleeful.
They prefer that their candidate — former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill — face Stutzman, who they view as extremely conservative with an outspoken nature that could turn off general election voters. They compared him to former GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who made incendiary comments about abortion and rape and lost the 2012 Senate race to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
"Today's hearing showed two things - Todd Young thinks he's above the law and it's always someone else's fault," Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said, accusing Young's campaign of blaming others for their lackluster signature gathering efforts.