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State cracks down on electioneering at local schools

The Harrison County Election Board had two meetings last Wednesday at the downtown courthouse. The first meeting started at 10 a.m. and was followed by the second one at 1.
The main focus of the first meeting was the discussion of electioneering on school property. Election board members Sally Whitis, Larry Shickles and Edith Richards led the meetings.
For the first meeting, the election board called in the superintendents of all three public school corporations in Harrison County to notify them about the new law regarding electioneering on school property.
‘The North Harrison school corporation sent us a letter asking us to give them some guidance on what should be or shouldn’t be done by employees in school corporations related to elections,’ Shickles said. ‘We’ve had that same issue keep coming up, so it was our decision to gather up the superintendents because they all have the same questions.’
Indiana’s new law went into effect July 1 that defines a new crime that applies to an ’employee’ using the ‘property’ of a political subdivision, including a school, to raise campaign cash or electioneer.
According to IC, a government employee refers to ‘an employee of the state, an employee of a political subdivision, a special state appointee, or an employee of a charter school.’
The IC also states ‘property’ refers only to equipment, goods and materials, including mail and messaging systems, or money.
A government employee cannot use the property to ‘solicit a contribution, advocate the election or defeat of a candidate or advocate the approval or defeat of a public question.’
The board also discussed the concept of ghost employment, which Indiana Code states as ‘a person employed by a governmental entity who knowingly or intentionally accepts property from the entity for the performance of duties not related to the operation of the entity.’ Ghost employment is a Class D felony.
‘The goal of the meeting was prevention and communication so everyone knows what to do and what not to do, so that we’re on the same page,’ Shickles said. ‘What we don’t want to do is have to deal with what happens after someone does it.’
Harrison County Prosecutor J. Otto Schalk also provided the superintendents with some advice and spoke in detail about the consequences that could occur.
‘If I was an employee of the school and I was online while at work, logged onto my Gmail account and sent an e-mail while being paid to work, then, if there was a criminal investigation, that would let them subpoena my personal e-mail because now it is public record,’ Schalk said. ‘What employees need to understand is that, if you’re using your personal e-mail on school computer on school time, then you are opening yourselves up to where that could become public record.’
Schalk then went into more detail by stating that if you’re on school property at a school function, even if it’s an after-school activity like a football game, it’s still not allowed.
The election board recommended to the school superintendents that, if their school policies do not have anything regarding electioneering at school, the school boards should add them.
North Harrison superintendent D. John Thomas confessed that the NH school board doesn’t have a policy about it but will add it as soon as possible.
‘Now, at the beginning of the school year, they can go to their teachers and tell them it will not be tolerated using school equipment or anything else for campaign-related matters,’ Whitis said. ‘And they are forewarned that, if they do, then there will be penalties.’
‘It’s pretty simple,’ Shickles said. ‘Do not use school equipment during school time or on school property or there will be consequences.’
During the afternoon meeting, the election board discussed campaign finance reports of candidates from past elections and revealed to five candidates their penalties and fines owed. (Three additional candidates were attempted to be contacted but their mailing addresses were no longer valid.)
Shickles described campaign finances as report forms that show where candidates obtained their money to fund their campaign.
‘This discloses to the public where the money comes from to fund campaigns,’ Shickles said. ‘So, the voters have a right to know and, if the candidates fill out the reports wrong, then they get fined.’
Candidates who were fined attended the hearing to get their penalties reduced to $250.