INDIANAPOLIS— Who votes and whether those votes will be fairly counted have emerged as the central themes of this year’s race for Indiana secretary of state.
The contest for the state’s third-highest elected position pits incumbent Republican Connie Lawson against Democrat Jim Harper and Libertarian Mark Rutherford.
Lawson, a former state senator for 16 years, has been secretary of state since 2012 when her predecessor left office and she is seeking her second four-year term. She had also been clerk for the Hendricks County Circuit Court for eight years.
Harper, an attorney from Valparaiso, is seeking to become the first Democratic Indiana secretary of state since 1994, when current Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett served. He has worked as a federal law clerk and a public defender before going into private practice.
Rutherford is an attorney at Thrasher Buschmann & Voelkel, P.C. in Indianapolis and is on the Indiana Public Defender Commission. He has been active with the Libertarian Party for more than 20 years, including service as the vice chair of the national organization from 2010 to 2012.
Even though the secretary of state’s office is composed of four divisions—business, securities and auto dealer services—the election division and whether the right to vote is secure are dominating the debate.
“I don’t think there is a more sacred responsibility of the chief elections officer than making sure every Hoosier’s vote is secure,” Harper said. “Right now, our elections are vulnerable and they are under attack.”
The Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute in Washington D.C., has given Indiana an F for election security.
CAP, in its grade, cited as unsatisfactory Indiana’s processes for voter-verified paper audit trails, post-election audits, ballot accounting and reconciliation, paper absentee ballots and pre-election logic and accuracy testing. The organization rated the state’s voting machine certification requirements as fair.
The CAP also rated the minimum cyber-security for voter registration systems as incomplete. It said that the Indiana secretary of state’s office declined to provide information regarding cyber-security requirements for the state’s voter registration system.
Lawson, in an interview, said she does not know why the state received an F from the CAP.
“We do a great job here in the state of Indiana keeping our elections secure,” Lawson said. She noted that the National Conference of State Legislatures recently held a conference in Indiana and said it wouldn’t have done so if Indiana wasn’t a leader in election security.
CAP said that Indiana is working toward developing more robust cyber-security training opportunities for county officials with access to the state’s voter registration system and that state has received or is expected to receive additional funding for cybersecurity at its election agencies.
Lawson’s campaign pointed to a critique of the CAP report that was conducted by the Voting System Technical Oversight Program, which is run through Ball State University. VSTOP advises the secretary of state’s office and the Indiana Election Commission on the certification of voting machines and electronic poll books in Indiana.
The VSTOP review said the weight given to categories in the CAP report seemed arbitrary, with no clear justification provided; the CAP report failed to meet basic criteria for academic, industry or policy research; and the report does not serve to inform the public.
The VSTOP review also said in spite of legitimate reasons to not share security information in a public forum, the CAP report elected to penalize the state for being responsible stewards of confidential information and how it is protected.
Lawson said counties purchase their own equipment but the federal and state government certify every voting machine in the state and her goal is to have a voter-verified paper trail by 2020.
She also said the state has a paper trail, meaning votes are printed after ballots are cast. But a voter-verified paper trail allows voters to view the printed copy of their ballot, allowing then to verify their vote was counted as cast.
Lawson’s campaign said the secretary of state’s office is currently discussing funding for voting equipment with the General Assembly, which meets again in January to set a two-year budget for the state.
In the 2016 general election, Indiana ranked 36th in voter turnout with 57.8 percent of the registered voters casting ballots, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates electoral reforms to give voters greater choice in elections.
“That’s a real problem in Indiana,” Harper said. “Indiana has historically had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country.”
Lawson disagreed that it’s a problem and said if the state did a better job of maintaining voter lists by removing invalid or inactive voters before the 2016 election, things would have been different.
“After we did our voter list maintenance program, if we would have been able to do it before the 2016 general, we would’ve actually turned out 65 percent which would have put us in one of the top 10 states in the country,” Lawson said.
Implementation of a law passed in 2017 that would have made it easier for election officials to remove people from voter registration rolls was blocked by a federal judge earlier this year. The final ruling could come after the election.
Rutherford, the Libertarian, said part of the problem in Indiana is the quality of candidates.
“If you don’t have desirable candidates, then people don’t go out and vote,” he said.
Harper said he supports expanding voting hours, same-day voter registration and would like to make it easier to vote by mail.
Harper called the process of drawing legislative district boundaries to benefit political parties—gerrymandering—the greatest threat to democracy.
“Under the system that we have in Indiana right now, the gerrymandered system, politicians essentially are choosing their voters and not the other way around,” Harper said.
Lawson, who worked on the committee drawing district boundaries after the 2010 census, disagrees with Harper.
“If you look at the maps in the state of Indiana, they are very concise and the lines are very straight and true,” Lawson said, noting that all congressional districts had the same number of voters except one.
Harper is calling for an independent redistricting commission to draw boundary lines after the 2020 census instead of the process where lawmakers drawn them. Proposed laws to create such a commission failed in the last two legislative sessions.
For Libertarians, the secretary of state’s race has special significance. For his party to continue to receive automatic ballot access in Indiana, Rutherford must receive two percent of the total vote on Nov. 6.
The Green Party of Indiana is trying to receive automatic ballot access with its write-in candidate for the 2018 election, George Wolfe.
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on election day.
James Polston is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.