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Who is electing Fort Wayne's new mayor anyway?

About 100 Democratic Party precinct chairs will elect Fort Wayne's new mayor in a historic caucus. But their names are private. We explore why.
The Local
About 100 Democratic Party precinct chairs will elect Fort Wayne's new mayor in a historic caucus. But their names are private. We explore why.

Following the recent death of Mayor Tom Henry, Fort Wayne's Democratic Party is facing a historic caucus where 98 precinct chairs will elect a new mayor to serve out the remaining three-and-a-half years of Henry's term – and likely compete in the 2027 mayoral election.

But while these 98 precinct chairs are (sometimes) elected by the public and supposed to be "the face" between them and political parties, you might not know who they are. That's because in Indiana, political parties maintain the lists of precinct members and are allowed to keep them private. As a result, many citizens don't know who's actually electing Fort Wayne's new mayor or how to contact them. Even most precinct chairs don't have the full list.

On April 18, citizens can hear from mayoral candidates themselves by attending a public town hall at Purdue University Fort Wayne in the Classic Ballroom at the Walb Student Union from 6-8 p.m. But a caucus vote by precinct chairs will determine the city's new mayor, beginning at 10:30 a.m. at Parkview Field on April 20.

While precinct chairs vote in many such caucuses to fill office vacancies in Indiana, their work often flies under the radar of public consciousness. Now, Fort Wayne's rare and high-stakes mayoral caucus – so early into Henry's (most recent) term – is drawing attention to why the names of precinct chairs are private and how they sometimes play an outsized role in state politics.

To learn more, we spoke with three local political insiders:

  • Andy Downs, a former political science professor and Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, who will moderate Thursday's town hall.
  • Rep. Mitch Harper, a former Republican state representative for 12 years, 1978-1990, who started as the youngest member of Indiana House of Representatives at age 22.
  • Nathan Gotsch, political writer behind the Fort Wayne Politics newsletter and former independent candidate for Indiana's 3rd Congressional District

Here's what we found out about Indiana precinct members:

  • Precinct members serve as "the face for the party." According to the Precinct Committee Chair Handbook for the Indiana Democratic Party, the Precinct Committee (PC) consists of at least two Democrats in each precinct: one chair and one vice-chair of differing genders. They are volunteers (not paid) and might also be elected officials in other roles (like City Councilman Geoff Paddock). Precinct members are charged with connecting people in the precinct (or designated voting district) to the Democratic Party. This can include canvassing neighborhoods or arranging special voter registration events. Derek Camp, chairman of the Allen County Democratic Party says: “What we ask them to do is talk to voters in their neighborhoods and help out candidates in their neighborhoods.”
  • But there's not a public list of precinct members. Instead, Executive Director of the Allen County Democratic Party Chad Wierzbinski tells us the precinct chair list is an internal party document not provided to the public or the media. (Follow our guide below for how you might be able to find your precinct member(s).)
  • The list of precinct chairs wasn't always private. When Harper was elected as a precinct member at age 18 in the mid-70’s, you could contact the County Election Board to find your precinct members. Those precinct members served two-year terms and were required to be residents of the precincts they represented. "That was a decades old requirement," Harper says. The county party chair and other officers were elected the Saturday after the primary election when the precinct members were elected, and only elected precinct members could elect the party county officers. Vacancies in a precinct could only be filled by another resident of the precinct and such appointments needed to be reported to the county Election Board. However, in recent decades, the legislature and the state party committees changed the rules in four significant ways: 1) Precinct vacancies can be filled by a person residing anywhere in a county, 2) two-year terms are now four-year terms, 3) County party officers are elected the year after a primary election by elected and appointed precinct members, and 4) parties began keeping precinct lists private.
  • Since Allen County is the largest county in Indiana (by land area), your precinct chair might not live near you. "Appointed precinct members can come from anywhere within the county," Harper says."So there have been situations where someone from Aboite Township was the nominal precinct chairman in St. Joseph Township and someone from St. Joseph Township was the chairperson in Aboite. There have been some great steps to align those more closely, but it isn't perfect."
  • Uncontested races are partially to blame. By the numbers alone, Allen County has 278 precincts, and well over 100 are within Fort Wayne, yet there are only 98 Democratic precinct chairs voting for the new mayor. This means: many local precincts don't have a Democratic precinct chair, likely because no one ran or was appointed by the party. Downs says: "If you pull up previous primary election ballots, you can actually see who the precinct committee candidates are in your precinct, and in many, many, many, many cases, they are uncontested races.... There really aren't many people chomping at the bit to have the role because it's mostly just volunteer work. Back in the days of party patronage, there were more benefits." So there's typically a lack of interest from the public about who precinct members are. "It's only a sticking point when there's a caucus," Downs says. "Nobody seems to care other than that."
  • It's also tied to bigger issues in Indiana politics. In 1972, Indiana voters approved a constitutional amendment, allowing the General Assembly to set the method for filling office vacancies, which led to caucuses (like Fort Wayne's), where precinct chairs choose successors to fill vacant offices within 30 days. But as Statehouse reporter Niki Kelly wrote in October, this has allowed political insiders to bypass the election system – having politicians purposefully vacate office prematurely, in some cases, and then caucus in replacements. In fact, since these caucuses took effect, office vacancies have increased 33% in Indiana, and one in five current representatives and senators were first appointed via a political caucus instead of by voters. "This is how Indiana law works, and both Republicans and Democrats have done it regularly," she says. "But is it the right state policy?"
  • Precinct members quitting their duties mid-term has contributed to parties keeping lists private, too. Downs notes that as more precinct chairs didn't fulfill their four-year terms, the Election Board's list of precinct members became "outdated in a hurry," so it made practical sense to let parties manage the list privately. It's unlikely that these vacancies at the precinct level have allowed parties to stack the deck for a specific caucus vote. "A person has to be a precinct chair for a defined amount of time before a caucus in order to vote in a caucus," Downs says. "This helps prevent the stacking of the deck for or against a caucus candidate."
  • But the decision to keep names private is controversial. Harper believes there is not a great reason precinct member names are not a public record. Instead, he sees it as a continuation of efforts to narrow and consolidate power in Indiana politics in recent decades. “People just accept political parties keeping precinct names private because they don’t know the history that is wasn’t always this way," he says. "There should be outrage because there’s no good reason for it." In fact, he was a part of the Republican State Committee 2017-2021 when it reissued rules retaining the non-public disclosure of the precinct member names. “I opposed the retention of that in the Rules Committee saying, 'There’s no good reason these names should not be a public record when they are performing a statutory public function of filling elective office vacancies.’ The main reasons given for retention is that it was a security concern. That precinct members would be put on mailing lists or would be contacted by the annoying or wacky individuals. I don’t think security was ever a serious concern. Heck, I told them, 'I have served as a legislator and a City Council member with my contact information freely available. The vast majority of persons who contacted me for public business were polite, interesting and provided valued input.' I think it was something party leaders insisted on to keep things more tightly controlled. Now, here we are, where precinct chairs are determining the mayor of Indiana’s second-largest city, and even concerned Democrats can’t find out who these persons are.”
  • Fort Wayne's mayoral race is calling the system into question. Fort Wayne is Indiana's second-largest city, and this is only the second such mayoral caucus here – and the first so early into a mayor's term. So the situation is raising some eyebrows about the outsized power of precinct members. Namely, The Journal Gazette reports Allen County Republican Party Chairman Steve Shine recently suggested for city- and county-wide positions: "a special election would be a better option because it would give the power to the people rather than a limited number of precinct committee members."
  • Other options to fill vacancies do exist. "50 states, 50 different ways," Downs says, noting that Indiana already stratifies its cities by class (aka population) to determine how offices are filled and makes special conditions for offices, like governor (Article 5, Section 10 of the Indiana Constitution). As far as caucuses/appointments versus special elections go in other states for legislative vacancies, Kelly notes: "It is split down the middle, with 25 states holding special elections. The rest have some sort of appointment, usually by party insiders or the governor." So perhaps there could be a special election to choose Fort Wayne's new mayor?
  • Still, there are costs to elections versus caucuses. Downs says: "In our state, it's expensive to run elections, and (the current system) is a way for vacancies to be filled in an expeditious manner and for the party in control of a seat to retain control of that seat." At the same time, Kelly (talking about state legislators, in this instance) feels the costs "could be worth it to make sure voters feel invested in their representative," suggesting: "Perhaps there could be a middle ground such as appointments when later in a term, but a special election if more than half of a term remains." Regardless of the method, there could still be what Downs calls "cascading effects" where, if a current officeholder fills a vacant seat, then their position also needs to be filled, and where do we draw the line on which offices are worthy of special elections? "Some people in Indiana argue we vote too much already," he says. "More special elections could contribute to voter fatigue."
  • Ultimately, changing the system and even making precinct names public could be challenging. Downs says there is "always the potential" for something like this to prompt change. However, it will take an action by the Indiana General Assembly, and that would not take place until January 2025 (unless they call a special session). By then, it may fall out of public consciousness again.

In the specific case of Fort Wayne's mayoral caucus...

Here's what we've heard:

  • It's unclear how representative precinct chairs will be. The Allen County Democratic Party tells us residents (of all parties) can contact them, and they will forward messages to the appropriate precinct chair. But from what Gotsch is hearing, each chair differs on how they view their position. "Some of the precinct chairs feel like their vote belongs solely their own; others feel that they share it with their constituents, so they're sending out surveys or posting on social media and trying to gather feedback," he says. "It's not really clear who their constituents are either: Is it just Democrats in their precinct, or is it everybody in their precinct?"
  • We do know a few things about who precinct chairs are. A mailer sent out by candidate and Councilwoman Michelle Chambers indicates there's a female majority. Gotsch also hears the majority live in the 5th (Downtown) and 6th (Southeast) City Council districts, represented by Geoff Paddock and Sharon Tucker (who is a candidate). He says precinct members he's talked with have similar criteria for voting, in order of importance, too: 1) Who is most likely to win re-election in 2027? 2) Who would do a good job as mayor? 3) Diversity.
  • There will likely be multiple rounds of voting. Rather than a traditional vote where the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, in order to win a caucus, a candidate must get at least 50% of the votes 0f attending precinct chairs, plus one, and the chairs will keep voting until someone achieves it. This means there could be up to six voting sessions (if seven candidates are running), and there will be 10-minute intermissions between votes where candidates will work the crowd and rally support. Some who are lagging in the polls early on may attempt to play king- or queen-maker, too, throwing their votes to another candidate in an alliance.

How to find your precinct chair (maybe!)

As previously mentioned, not all precincts in Fort Wayne have a Democratic precinct chair. But if you do, you might be able to find yours via the 2023 Primary Election Results.

Try it by following these steps:

  1. Identify your precinct: Go to the Indiana Voter's Portal. Under "Check Voting Status," click "Check Your Registration Record," and enter the requested information: Your name, date of birth and county (Allen). Press "Submit," and proceed to your portal, which should list your precinct number right below your township. (Mine is 554.)
  2. Find your precinct member: Once you have your precinct number handy, visit the Allen County Election Board's website. Under "Elections," click "Election Results," and then click the most recent year (2023), and select "2023 Primary Official Results" (not detail results). Then search for your precinct number, and see which candidate has the most votes. (Mine is Phil GiaQuinta, who also happens to be a mayoral candidate in the caucus.) This is likely your Democratic precinct member. (There are also Republican precinct members, but their election is on different years, aligning with the federal election cycle).

For more stories like this, you can subscribe to The Local Fort Wayne (www.thelocalfw.com), a weekly email news brief.

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