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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Fear of fraud could prompt attacks on voting rights

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An organization working to register Indiana voters and 12 of the organization’s employees are facing criminal charges after fraudulent voter registration applications were turned in to county clerks in Marion and St. Joseph counties ahead of last November’s election.

According to court documents, the Indiana Voter Registration Project (IVRP) pressured employees to meet a per-shift quota of new voter registrations “by any means necessary,” which prompted the accused employees to “duplicate information from actual voter registration files onto new applications,” among other tactics.

The investigation began in August 2016, prompting a national outcry and raising fears of voter suppression when Indiana State Police served search warrants at IVRP’s Indianapolis headquarters. Investigators insist their work was done entirely above-board, and the query has come to a close with the filing of charges, but many in the community are keeping watch for potential fallout.

One major concern among voting rights advocates is the perception of voter fraud that could linger in the wake of the IVRP situation, despite Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry’s reassurances to the public that no voter fraud occurred.

“Let me be clear that these are not allegations of voter fraud nor is there any evidence to suggest that voter fraud was the alleged motivation,” Curry said in a media statement. “We do not believe this was a widespread effort to infringe voters, intentionally register ineligible individuals, or to impact the election. Instead we allege that a bad business practice led to illegal actions by (IVRP) and these 12 individuals.”

The real problem? 

Not fraud.

Research has shown that confirmed cases of voter fraud are rare, but Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU of Indiana, said the fear of potential voter fraud is often exaggerated and used to bolster support of various voter suppression efforts. Henegar said the ACLU is particularly troubled by the creation of President Donald Trump’s commission to investigate voter fraud, “which we think is just an excuse to get to voter suppression efforts,” she added.

“We know the truth, that there is no fundamental challenge to our election integrity,” Henegar said. “We believe this is a solution in search of a problem.” 

Henegar said the real problem with our voting system is voter turnout, which is dismally low in Indiana for a variety of reasons. State Rep. John Bartlett, a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) who sits on the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, also cited concerns about Indiana’s poor voter turnout in a recent discussion with the Recorder about election integrity in Indiana. 

Bartlett said formal measures like voter ID laws and a limited number of satellite voting sites in Marion County, coupled with informal measures like having a police presence at polling sites on Election Day, work together to keep turnout low, especially among minorities. 

Ironically, the situation with the IVRP project — the organization aiming to get more people to the polls on Election Day — could only make matters worse. Studies indicate perceptions of voter fraud have a negative impact on turnout. According to the 2012 findings by the American National Election Survey (ANES) — which the Washington Post has called “the most authoritative and long-standing academic survey of the electorate” — voters who question the integrity of the democratic process are far less likely to vote than those who have faith in the system. Survey results showed a 13-point gap in voter turnout rates between respondents who believe votes are “very often” counted fairly and those who had strong doubts.

Bartlett said gerrymandering — the practice of redrawing congressional districts to sway election outcomes in favor of a particular group — is another way the system is manipulated in Indiana, and a recent Associated Press analysis of findings by the state legislature’s Special Interim Study Committee on Redistricting found that the practice has paid off for the Republican Party in Indiana. Henegar says the strategy harms voter turnout because there is no incentive to vote in districts that are non-competitive, and many Republicans in Indiana don’t even face opposition in elections.

It’s an issue the Supreme Court has agreed to take up, specific to a redistricting case in Wisconsin, but it’s also been addressed at the Indiana Statehouse. Sen. Jean Breaux, an IBLC member who sits on the Senate Elections Committee, said proposed legislation to form a nonpartisan redistricting commission has seen public support.

“But at the end of the day, it’s the chairs that decide whether or not it goes forward, and in this most recent discussion, a vast majority (of public commenters) were in favor of having some kind of nonpartisan redistricting commission,” she said. Despite the public support, the measure was not called for a vote, and it died in committee.

Many possible solutions

Secretary of State Connie Lawson works to educate Hoosier voters about the integrity of the state’s system.

“Secretary Lawson travels the state speaking with voters about the safety and security of our elections. In addition, our office works with members of the media to assure Hoosiers that our elections are safe and secure,” Lawson’s office wrote in an email to the Recorder. “In these conversations, we work to educate Hoosiers about safety and security measures we have in place. One of the unique security measures we use in Indiana is the Voting System Technical Oversight Program. This is a program run by a nonpartisan group at Ball State University that test our election equipment prior to use in the state.”

Lawson, via a spokesperson, says it’s too soon to tell what impact the IVRP case might have on Indiana’s electoral procedures and whether lawmakers could pursue changes to how voters are registered or how votes are cast in Indiana.

“I can tell you in the past few years, it has become easier to register to vote. Hoosiers can register to vote at any time from their computer or smartphone,” her spokesperson said. “Since Secretary Lawson has been Secretary of State, she launched the Indiana Voters app to make it easier for Hoosiers to register from their smartphones. This app also allows people to request an absentee ballot or find their polling place on their phone.”

Across the country, other states have taken various approaches to makes voting easier. In North Dakota, for example, voters don’t have to register at all; eligible voters simply show up to the polls with required identification to cast a ballot. In 14 states plus the District of Columbia, voters can both register and vote on Election Day.

Henegar said the U.S. can find examples all over the world of how to improve elections.

“We have models all across the world on how to make voting easier: having a federal holiday, having (elections) on weekends, multiple days of voting. … We talk about ourselves as a model of democracy for the world, and we are woefully behind in adopted tactics that encourage voting rather than discourage voting,” she said.

Members of the IBLC are not resting on their laurels when it comes to voting accessibility in Indiana.

“We are so committed as a caucus to trying to do everything we can to make voting more accessible,” Breaux said. “Provisions to simplify the process are on our conversation radars constantly.”

Breaux and Bartlett both said significant changes to Indiana’s election systems are unlikely in the foreseeable future with the current political climate, but they hope their efforts at the Statehouse will get people’s attention and inspire voters to push for progress.

In fact, Breaux said, the voters play the most essential role of all.

“No matter how many barriers are thrown before the voters, it is so critically important that each individual exercise their right to vote. … Whatever the rules, until we can get some change, abide by those rules and go out and vote,” she said. “We have shed blood for the right to vote. … We can’t afford complacency. No matter how resigned they may be, nothing is going to change unless they vote.”

Vote Twice

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