INDIANAPOLIS – Is voter fraud an actual problem in Indiana for the 2016 election? Or is partisan rhetoric inflaming simple voter registration issues in more than 50 counties in the Hoosier State?
The facts have yet to be fully understood.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Connie Lawson called on Indiana State Police to conduct a 56-county investigation concerning "voter fraud" after she said "thousands" of birth dates and first names were reported changed on voter registrations.
“These records were changed on paper forms, at the BMV and online," said Lawson. "At this time, my office is not sure why these records were changed, but we have evaluated the Statewide Voter Registration System and have found no indication it has been compromised. We believe this may be a case of voter fraud and have turned our findings over to the State Police, who are currently conducting an investigation into alleged voter fraud.”
Leaders of Indiana's Democratic Party (IDP) said Thursday that Secretary of State Connie Lawson's label of these changes as "voter fraud" is "reckless."
Party officials said Lawson is misleading Hoosiers on voter registration irregularities in an attempt to cause confusion and influence on the upcoming election.
Indiana State Police said the registrations in question came from Patriot Majority USA, a subsidiary of the Indiana Voter Registration project, which Indiana's Democrats say has no affiliation with them.
Emily Shrock, director of voter protection from IDP said what Lawson is calling voter fraud is actually a string of irregularities in registration.
“Actual voter fraud requires the attempt to defraud.A person would have to go to a polling location, present a false identification and vote as someone else,” she said.
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Shrock cited a 2014 study from Justin Levitt, professor at Loyola Law School on the rarity of voting fraud. According to Levitt, only 31 different incidents of voter fraud have occurred from 2000 to 2014 out of more than 1 billion votes cast across the country.
“What Hoosiers are seeing in the news is not voter fraud, in fact, what we are seeing are voter registration errors in counties across the state. Sometimes there may not be errors at all but irregularities in registration names such as Bob (and) Robert. Situations that can be worked out with a simple phone call,” she said.
Secretary Lawson had already admitted Wednesday that Shrock's explanations were plausible, but that the call for an investigation was to make sure of it.
"It's very possible that because of heightened activity this year that many of those changes are changes that the individual made," Lawson said Wednesday. "... That should give Indiana voters the comfort that we are vigilant and we are protecting their rights and the elections here are not rigged."
Still, the IDP said Secretary Lawson’s use of words of like “fraud” and “rigged” three weeks before Election Day, “seems like a last ditch effort to have influence on the election.”
The Indiana Democrats went on to say they do not believe ISP's investigation is a waste of time, but rather they take issue with the label of "voter fraud" before tangible evidence has been uncovered and released.
The Democrats said they have not received information on which voters were compromised and where (but said the Republican Party has received that information), and without that transparency it's "reckless" to call these instances voter fraud.
A public records request filed by the Associated Press shows co-director of the election division Angie Nussmeyer's Republican counterpart in the elections division, Brad King, was looped in on emails from Lawson's office and state police about the initial investigation in September, as was Pence aide Shelley Triol. Nussmeyer, however, says she was not.
Democrats say this is evidence that the probe is partisan in nature.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana, said that before Lawson makes allegations of possible fraud her office "should make sure the voter file records haven't been altered through software snafus or human errors made by people in county or state agencies."
"There is almost no history of this kind of fraud here so her response helps to fuel irrational claims by Donald Trump and others that the election will be stolen through voter fraud," Vaughn said.
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Peter Hanscom, Coordinated Campaign Executive Director for IDP, said many Republicans and Democrats see no fraud at the local level.
“The problem isn’t that the state police are involved in an investigation. It’s that this inflammatory rhetoric, which now is matched up with a major party’s presidential nominee who’s claiming there is a rigged election. That depresses turnout,” Hanscom said.
Republican Rep. Kathy Richardson of Noblesville in Hamilton County is one county official who said she isn't seeing evidence of voter fraud. She told the Associated Press it's common for people to update their voter registrations before an election to reflect changes to names or addresses. Her office oversees elections in Hamilton County.
ISP was firm Wednesday, saying there is strong evidence of forgery.
"Given the fact that the Statewide Voter Registration System has not been compromised, we believe the reports Secretary Lawson turned over... may serve as evidence of forgery by representatives associated with the Indiana Voter Registration Project, which is a subsidiary organization of a group that calls itself Patriot Majority USA."
A source inside Indiana State Police said Thursday their investigation may not be completed before Election Day.
The IDP said they will respect the outcome of the investigation, but want transparency in the process.
Governor Mike Pence chimed in during a Thursday campaign stop as part of his GOP vice presidential bid, giving credence to the Secretary of State's label.
"Don't kid yourself, voter fraud is real," Pence said.
BREAKING: @GovPenceIN addresses IN voter fraud case during Nevada campaign stop, ties it to Sen. Harry Reid @rtv6 #PenceWatch @jasonfechner pic.twitter.com/yoNY2pqLgV
— #IndyThisWeek (@IndyThisWeek) October 20, 2016
Patriot Majority responded Thursday afternoon, saying that Sen. Harry Reid did not establish the group:
"Patriot Majority USA was formed in 2005. Harry Reid is a great patriot but he did not found this group."
Secretary Lawson also fired back Thursday afternoon, saying she has been hearing complaints straight from voters. She released the following statement:
“Voters have been contacting my office for nearly two weeks. They have stated specifically that their date of birth or first name on their voter registration was changed without their knowledge. As Indiana’s Chief Elections Officer, I have a duty to ensure these voters are not disenfranchised because they think they are no longer registered. I let these voters know they are still registered and can still vote on Election Day. Time is of the essence as there are only 19 days until the election.
“With these facts in mind, for anyone to suggest I am playing politics with voter registration is absurd. My top priority is to ensure everyone can cast a vote on Election Day.
“For the record, I have not given the lists my office pulled to anyone in the Election Division, which includes representatives of both parties. The lists were only given to state police. I did this out of my concern for voters and for the integrity of our elections.
“This is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously. Since I have been Secretary of State, there have been two cases of voter fraud in Indiana. Butch Morgan, the St. Joe County Democrat Party Chair was convicted and served time for petition forging. Former Democratic State Representative Mike Marshall was convicted and served time for absentee ballot fraud. I hope we will not have a third conviction, but it is my duty to the voters of Indiana to stay vigilant.”
Bottom line: Check your voter registration as soon as possible at indianavoters.in.gov to ensure it's valid and has not been tampered with, regardless of whether it was by mistake or through some felonious manipulation.
If there is inaccurate information, call the Indiana State Police Voter Registration Application Fraud tip line at 888-603-3147.
The Secretary of State's Office is also available to help voters from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST on regular business days by calling 866-461-8683.
The voter registration deadlinein Indiana has passed, but the Secretary of State has pledged to help people sort this out so they can vote on Election Day, Nov. 8.
While all Indiana voters should confirm their voter registration information, it's especially important for voters who live in the counties being investigated: