Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels will be able to choose a replacement for Indiana's ousted top elections official following a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday that found Democrats waited too long to challenge the GOP official's candidacy in 2010.
In a unanimous decision, the court overturned a Marion County judge's decision ordering the state recount commission to certify the runner-up, Democrat Vop Osili, as Indiana's secretary of state. Republican Charlie White, who won the race, was removed from office after he was convicted of felony voter fraud and perjury charges last month.
The decision dissipated a cloud of uncertainty that has lingered over the politically powerful office for more than a year, since Democrats accused White of lying about where he lived on his voter registration so he could keep his paid seat on the Fishers Town Council. White was sentenced Feb. 23 to one year of home detention.
With Indiana's primary election less than two months away, the court acted swiftly — ruling in about two weeks when it often takes months.
Daniels said he would act "pretty quickly" to appoint someone to finish the remainder of White's four-year term. "I've got, I think, a really good person in mind," he said. Daniels named White's chief deputy, Jerry Bonnet, interim secretary of state after White's February conviction.
Osili told The Associated Press that he hoped whoever was appointed would work with officials to make it easier for voters to comply with Indiana's voter ID law.
"The most important thing is that whoever is appointed to fill that slot has his or her highest priority to make sure that anyone who is legally able to vote in Indiana is able to vote," Osili said. "Nothing should be easier than being able to vote."
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker said in a statement that it was "unfortunate" Indiana would have an appointed rather than elected secretary of state.
"We hope that person respects the integrity of the office and the elections process and will work with both parties to make sure that every Hoosier with the ability to vote can do so in a fair and open manner," he said.
The justices — three appointed by Republican governors and two by Democrats — unanimously overturned a Marion County judge's decision ordering the state recount commission to certify Osili, who finished about 300,000 votes behind White. The commission had upheld White's candidacy last June.
Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote that Democrats could have filed an official challenge to White's candidacy before the election instead of waiting until after the election. Under Indiana law, he said political campaigns must "investigate and vet their opposition before the pre-election time limitations expire."
"But that is better than the alternative: that a challenger might ignore a known (or knowable) disqualification challenge before the election, wait to see who won at the polls, and then seek to set aside the results of the democratic process," Shepard wrote.
Republicans have argued that was exactly what Democrats had done. Indiana GOP Chairman Eric Holcomb said in a statement Thursday that the ruling was "a far cry from the judicial activism used to try and overturn an election at the behest of Chairman Dan Parker and the Indiana Democratic Party."
Parker denied the allegation.
"We respectfully disagree that state law places a legal burden on parties to conduct opposition research," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Not knowing about something doesn't make it legal. We did not know about Charlie White's residency issues and were unable to file the challenge before the election."
White resigned from his town council seat in September 2010, after a Fishers resident questioned his residency. Democrats asked then-Secretary of State Todd Rokita to investigate the claims the following week, but didn't file a formal complaint with the recount commission until after the November election.