Roughly 45,000 newly registered voters in Indiana — almost all of whom are black — may not be allowed to vote next month after state police targeted the state’s largest voter registration drive, forcing it to shut down its operation.
Police raided the Indiana Voter Registration Project (IVRP) offices on October 4, seizing documents and equipment and forcing the group to cease its get-out-the-vote efforts one week before the end of the state’s registration period. Bill Buck, a spokesperson for the liberal nonprofit Patriot Majority USA which runs the IVRP, told ThinkProgress that IVRP could have registered about 5,000 more voters in that additional week.
The IVRP is still unsure whether the 45,000 people it registered will be permitted to vote this year, or how the state will handle their applications while the police investigation is ongoing. Bill Bursten, chief public information officer for the Indiana State Police, told ThinkProgress that law enforcement is investigating whether IVRP is violating fraud and forgery laws.
“It will be up to each prosecutor to review the completed investigation and take whatever action they, as the local prosecuting authority, deem appropriate,” Bursten said. “Investigations of this nature are complicated and can take an extended period of time to complete.”
Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R)’s office declined to comment, and Buck said IVRP is still unclear what law it violated or why it’s being aggressively targeted by election officials and police.
“They saw that there was a very successful voter registration drive happening, and this was an attempt to shut it down.”
The IVRP launched in April of this year to improve voter participation in Indiana, particularly in African American neighborhoods in Indianapolis and the Chicago suburbs. In 2014, Indiana had the worst voter turnout rate in the country.
But Lawson, a Republican secretary of state, decided not to address her state’s abysmal participation levels (as a legislator, she cosponsored the state’s strict voter ID law). Instead, she went after voter registration groups. In September, she sent a letter to state elections officials warning them about groups like IVRP.
“Unfortunately, it has recently come to my attention that nefarious actors are operating here in Indiana,” she wrote. “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.”
Buck said that at the time, they had no evidence that IVRP was intentionally submitting forged or fraudulent applications. While Republicans claim otherwise, voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
Almost three weeks later, as IVRP was planning for one final week of its registration efforts, police entered the group’s offices with a search warrant and seized equipment and paperwork.
Patriot Majority alleges the investigation and raid were political moves, and that Lawson worked closely with Gov. Mike Pence (R), who has pushed the “voter fraud” conspiracy on the campaign trail alongside Donald Trump.
“We’ve seen nothing but partisan activity from the secretary of state, and even from the police,” Buck said. “They saw that there was a very successful voter registration drive happening, and this was an attempt to shut it down.”
“It’s clear that the governor or the governor’s staff are very aware and involved in what’s happening,” he continued. “It fits into the Trump/Pence narrative that in certain neighborhoods, you have to watch how many times people show up to vote and how things happen.”
State elections officials have also enlisted the help of the Indiana State Police to push the “voter fraud” myth. Superintendent Doug Carter, who was chosen for the position by Pence, has been on television and was interviewed on right-wing radio Tuesday morning about the ongoing investigation.
On conservative talk radio, Carter said that “the notion that there is voter registration fraud is very real,” but denied that the investigation is “driven by politics.”
He accused the IVRP of forging signatures and making up people’s names. “To what purpose? We don’t know,” he told radio host Tony Katz. “That’s the purpose of the investigation. Were these acts of gross negligence? Were they acts of intent? That’s what we don’t know, and we don’t want to speculate.”
He added that police are going through thousands of registrations to make sure that nothing nefarious occurred.
“While I’ve been blamed by some of intentionally disenfranchising voters, nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
On TV, Carter also called it “unconscionable” that anyone would imply that Pence ordered the raid, while also indicating his close relationship with the governor.
“I wish people could know Mike Pence like I do,” he said. “He has never ever tried to influence me with a decision that I had to make within the state police as we protect the citizens of this state.”
— #IndyThisWeek (@IndyThisWeek) October 21, 2016
Buck called it “completely bizarre” that the police have become spokespeople for Indiana’s electoral system.
Before raiding IVRP’s offices, police were already using aggressive tactics during their investigation of the group.
According to the New Republic, “police detectives arrived unannounced at the homes of get-out-the-vote activists to interrogate them about their voter registration work.”
Lydia Garrett, a 57-year-old voter registration worker, told the New Republic that police came to her home and repeatedly asked her if the group illegally sets quotas for canvassers.
“That’s what they kept on asking me: ‘How many did they tell you to get? How many did they tell you to get?’” she told a reporter. “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.’”
Garrett claims that investigators kept questioning her, trying to get her to “say something negative.” She said police even asked her if she would be willing to submit to a polygraph test about her registration work.
Neither the police nor the secretary of state’s office would not comment on their tactics.
Local news also reported that police seized at least 250 voter registrations, but state officials only informed IVRP of about ten problematic applications, none of which show a fraudulent intent.
Under Indiana law, the project is required to submit all voter registration forms, regardless of how they are filled out or if there are imperfections, Buck said.
Voter registration drives across the country follow similar protocol, without being subject to investigations. A Huffington Post investigation reported that “it seems the extraordinary investigation is likely to find no more than potential technical violations of obscure regulations for third-party voter registration groups.”
Two days after the police raid, the IVRP asked the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to initiate an investigation.
“We’ve never had the state police involved in any voter registration project,” Buck said. “It’s pretty unprecedented for this to happen.”