Last fall, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson and then-Gov. Mike Pence, repeatedly spoke about their fears of widespread irregularities and fraud in the state’s voting system.
Pence, now vice president and chair of President Donald Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, described a “vigorous investigation” into fraud in Indiana, and Lawson, also appointed to the commission, talked of “nefarious actors” in the state system. A State Police raid shut down an Indianapolis voter project that aimed to register minority voters. And later, citing no evidence, Trump insisted that millions had voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election.
Last fall, I left Maryland and moved temporarily to Indiana to teach journalism at DePauw University. Rather than go through Maryland’s somewhat onerous absentee voting system, I registered in Greencastle, where I was living and teaching. Aware of Indiana’s voter ID law, I arrived at the county courthouse with an electric utility bill, certain I would need to prove my residency.
Turns out, I did not need to show anything to register. But the registrar warned me that I would need a state or federal photo ID on Election Day. Eager to see how a voter ID system worked, I arrived with my passport at the Cornerstone Baptist Church, where the voting judges twice examined my passport. They commented about the number of stamps on the passport. I verbally confirmed my age and address. Then I voted.
While Lawson and Pence have staunchly backed Indiana’s voter ID law, I was puzzled. What did the law accomplish? Showing my passport proved my citizenship but nothing about my Indiana residency.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has studied voter fraud for more than a decade, and has repeatedly determined that the problem isn’t a problem at all. In states such as Indiana that have begun requiring voters to show photo IDs, it seems as if the law was a solution in search of a problem.
The week before the Oct. 11 registration deadline in Indiana, one of the earliest in the country, the State Police raided the Indiana Voter Registration Project after they said they had received evidence of possible fraud. While Lawson and Pence praised the action, some registrars, including some Republicans, said the move appeared heavy handed, and failed to take account of the need to update Lawson’s voter rolls, which had many outdated addresses for voters. The registration project was not only registering new voters, but also was trying to give voters opportunities to update their registrations with new addresses.
Last week, the state prosecutor for Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, came up with some charges. District Attorney Tim Curry said that an unknown number of registrations appeared to have been incorrectly filled out by the Indiana Voter Registration Project, with false names, addresses and dates of birth. Under Indiana law, those forms have to be turned in by canvassers, whether or not they are deemed accurate. In several instances, according to a State Police affidavit, the forms were flagged as inaccurate by the organization but not always in the correct form.
Curry stressed in a statement that the case is not about voter fraud, but a matter of what he called “bad business practices” by canvassers paid to register voters. Even so, these are felonies, and if the canvassers are convicted, they could face some serious fines and jail time.
Craig Varoga, a Democratic operative who headed the voter project, has worked on registration drives in several states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. He said the experience in Indiana was “beyond unprecedented. It was deliberate, it was systematic, it was designed to shut the program down.” Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor representing the voter project, said that the group’s system of checking on wrong or false forms had actually worked and that the group had severed ties with the canvassers who were being charged. “All of the canvassers were dismissed or quit because of quality control concerns by the organization,” he said.
Meanwhile, Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP are making some claims of their own about illegal interference with voting, but they are blaming Indiana elections officials, and a law that makes it tough to open early voting sites, which minority voters and residents with difficult work schedules often use to cast their ballots.
The two organizations filed a federal lawsuit last month, claiming that Marion County suppressed the vote by providing only one early voting site for an area with a population of more than 900,000 residents and about 700,000 registered voters.
A state law — approved after Indiana went for Barack Obama in 2008 — requires local election commissions to unanimously approve new early voting sites. In Marion County, the Republican commissioner has repeatedly refused to vote for any new sites.
So, Indiana officials sent in the State Police to stop voter registration in a minority community before the deadline for registration had passed, instead of waiting to allow registrars to examine the registrations and discard those that were incomplete or inaccurate.
They stood by quietly as an appointed election commissioner, on the losing side of a 2-1 vote, was allowed to limit early voting in neighborhoods with minority voters.
At the same time, they complained about voter fraud but have thus far provided no evidence.
Which seems to beg the question of just who was interfering with the right to vote in Indiana at a time when Pence was still running the state. And it offers a chilling picture of what might happen in the deliberations of the Pence-led Election Integrity Commission whose work is just now getting underway.
Miranda S. Spivack, a former reporter and editor with The Washington Post, is the Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.