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The GOP’s Next Target: Get-Out-the Vote Operations?

Indiana Republicans are hassling a liberal voter registration group, in what appears to be a bid to make its work seem suspect.

Ben Sklar/Getty Images

On September 15, elections officials across Indiana received an alarming note from Connie Lawson, the state’s Republican secretary of state. “Unfortunately, it has recently come to my attention that nefarious actors are operating here in Indiana,” warned Lawson’s letter, which was sent to election administrators in each of the state’s 92 counties. “A group by the name of the Indiana Voter Registration Project has forged voter registrations. ... If you receive one of these applications, please contact the Indiana State Police Special Investigations.”

For weeks, the state had been quietly pursuing an investigation into the Indiana Voter Registration Project, a get-out-the-vote group backed by the liberal-leaning Patriot Majority. Its mission is to resuscitate voter participation in Indiana from a record low in 2014. In cooperation with Secretary Lawson’s office, state police placed six detectives on the case, interrogated members of the voting group, and performed forensics on registration documents. After determining that a handful of the group’s registration applications were forged, the state notified numerous officials, as well as local news media, that a shady organization was undermining democratic elections across Indiana.

The Patriot Majority expresses bewilderment at Lawson’s allegations and counters that the state’s investigative tactics—and Lawson’s public portrayal of the group as villainous—amount to a partisan effort to suppress voter registration in the state. The group points to the small number of flawed applications: Although the IVRP has submitted tens of thousands of voter registration forms in the Hoosier state this year, the state had only identified ten applications that were allegedly forged. (A news report released Thursday said that state police removed 250 suspicious IVRP registrations this week from a county elections office in central Indiana.)

In their investigation, police detectives arrived unannounced at the homes of get-out-the-vote activists to interrogate them about their voter registration work, according to voting organizers. One of the canvassers that I spoke with felt that police had attempted to badger her into giving a statement against the IVRP, and even asked her to submit to a polygraph test about her registration work.

Perhaps most alarming for the group, according to Craig Varoga, the head of the Patriot Majority, is that the state appears to be seeking to criminalize a routine feature of voter registration drives, which inevitably involve submitting forms that contain imperfections. Varoga says that canvassers cannot choose to discard applications that appear to be incomplete or faulty; all such voter forms must be submitted to state elections offices. “If you’ve worked in an organized drive you know that you have to submit everything,” says Varoga, “even the forms that you think are problematic.”

“Our standard process is to go through it all and identify things that the clerks should look into,” Varoga adds, explaining that elections offices will routinely communicate with the canvassing operation about any faulty applications. “They call and say: ‘Hey this is a little weird, can you explain this?’”

The state asserts that Varoga’s group appears to have gone beyond turning in voter applications containing mere mistakes. “From what we found in the initial ten that we looked at, and the reason we’re continuing to look, is that we found instances of totally fictitious information,” says Dave Bursten, the chief public information officer for the Indiana State Police. “People that didn’t exist with addresses that didn’t exist. On others, real people have had their registration cards updated with incorrect information, which would potentially disenfranchise them from being able to cast their vote.” 

Bursten rejects Varoga’s assertion that the investigation aimed to suppress. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bursten says. “Every legal resident of this country that wants to register to vote should be afforded that opportunity.”

Earlier this month, a 57-year-old voter registration worker named Lydia Garrett received a very different impression from the state police, who arrived at her home in eastern Indianapolis on a Saturday to question her. Garrett says that, at first, the police repeatedly asked her whether the group set quotas for canvassers, a policy that has damaged other voting groups—perhaps most prominently the now-defunct ACORN—but does not appear to violate Indiana law. “That’s what they kept on asking me: ‘How many did they tell you to get? How many did they tell you to get?’” Garrett recalls. “And I said: ‘Sir, you can come back with two or three [registrations] and you’re still paid. I don’t understand what you’re saying.’”

The investigators began phrasing their questions oddly to “twist it around,” Garrett says. “They were trying to get me to say something negative.”

During the interrogation, Garrett recalls, one of the detectives pointedly told Garrett that he had been a detective for years and could tell when someone was lying. She says the detectives asked her whether she would take a polygraph test to prove she was telling the truth. “I said, ‘No, I’m not taking a polygraph test,’” Garrett says, “‘because I didn’t do anything wrong.’” 

“I told them: ‘You better not be messing with our program because it’s lovely,’” recalls Garrett, who says she has been working with IVRP since April. “You can’t imagine how many people I’ve registered, and they were so happy.”

Both Bursten and the secretary of state’s office declined to comment on any specifics of the investigation’s tactics. A spokesperson for Lawson emphasizes that, while Lawson’s office has taken a role in communicating with the public about the IVRP, the state police are leading the investigation. “At the onset, the state police came to us asking for our help because we communicate with the clerks,” says the spokesperson, Valerie Warycha. “They will not come back and talk to us until the end of the investigation.”

For his part, Varoga of Patriot Majority expresses astonishment at the lack of communication from the state. “Before [Lawson] sent this letter out,” Varoga says, the secretary of state “never contacted our office, never asked us any questions.” 

Lawson has previously been accused of voter suppression for co-authoring one of the nation’s first strict laws requiring the state’s residents to produce photo identification in order to vote. And this isn’t the first time a Republican secretary of state has been accused of using the office’s control over elections to suppress voting. During Georgia’s 2014 election, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp launched an extensive investigation into the New Georgia Project, a high-profile, Democrat-connected voter registration drive in the state that national commentators suggested held the potential to turn the state purple.

Echoing the current controversy in Indiana, Georgia Democrats were incensed by Kemp’s public assertions that his preliminary investigation had found “significant illegal activities”—rhetoric that voting activists said was an attempt to cast a pall of criminality on the get-out-the-vote work. Kemp’s investigation into the New Georgia Project lasted well over a year and, two years later, no charges have been announced.  

In the case of Indiana, the Patriot Majority says that its voter registration numbers have not subsided since the state’s investigation. But Varoga’s main worry is that the state will use the investigation to refuse to process thousands of legitimate applications that the group submitted. 

“The pace of getting the applications has not slowed, but our concern is about whether these applications are going to be honestly processed,” Varoga says. “This is the most hostile and most partisan environment that we’ve encountered.”