by Shanna Reulbach

Indiana’s recent history with voter registration is somewhat baffling, to say the least.  The state seems to swing like a pendulum between liberal and conservative measures and priorities, and compliance and defiance of federal mandates that extend the availability of registration materials to new populations.  An illustrative juxtaposition would be that the rhetoric of voter fraud is often at the forefront of Indiana election debates, yet the legislature authorized online voter registration in 2009, when many viewed the use of computer technology as enabling fraud.

The first subject that comes to any election law junkie’s mind in discussing Indiana’s election code is the state’s voter ID requirement and the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of the law in its 2008 decision, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.  In that case, Indiana asserted a governmental interest in preventing voter fraud at the polls, pointing to its “unusually inflated list of registered voters” as a major source of concern.  While Crawford was not centered on voter registration, the state’s arguments reveal a lack of confidence in the voter registration process’ ability to prevent fraud.

Fast-forwarding to this past year, two other events mark the voter registration debate.  First, in March, a grand jury indicted Secretary of State Charlie White with three counts of voter fraud: “filing [a] fictitious registration,” “voting where not registered,” and “fraudulent registration.”  White was registered at his ex-wife’s home and voted in that district, even though he had moved away.  Ironically, the Secretary of State serves as the chief election officer.  The Indiana Recount Commission determined that White was eligible to run for that office, but he is still awaiting his criminal trial.  This scandal has shined a spotlight on registration issues, but fraud has not been the rallying point.  All of the parties involved with the accusations, White, his Democrat opponents, and the Commission, agree that registration residency requirements have to be liberalized to account for nontraditional living configurations.

Secondly, the state entered into a consent decree in August, agreeing to more effectively implement the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) provision requiring state public assistance agencies to offer voter registration materials to their clients.  The NVRA mandated this program in order to ‘”reach [low-income] citizens who are less likely to register through other means.’”  Indiana was initially successful in implementing the program, registering about 3,500 persons at public assistance offices each month until 2006.  In 2007-2008, though, with Crawford working its way toward the Supreme Court, this number decreased to 100 new registrations per month.  This number has been on the rise since the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP brought suit in 2009, but the consent decree’s necessity again suggests that the state sometimes has a restrictive view of voter registration.

Perhaps the most significant reform measure directly affecting voter registration, undertaken amidst this implicit policy debate on the accessibility of the right to vote, was the progressive step of beginning online registration.  The state’s voter registration website became active on July 1, 2010, making Indiana only the eighth state to offer the option.  Officials embraced the system because they projected it would cut costs associated with registration by 60-70% and make it easier to track data.  Prospective voters have enjoyed the convenience of registering in their own homes, or even on the go, as Hosiers can now submit an application using a cell phone.  The only requirement for using the system is that the registrant have a valid driver’s license or state identification card so that her signature can be checked against the Bureau of Motor Vehicle’s electronic records.  The ease of obtaining an identification card was the core issue in Crawford, but because people can still register using the paper form there is no disenfranchising effect.  Furthermore, the online system seems to be serving its purpose of increasing voter registration, as almost 8,000 people registered online during the first three months of the system’s life.

From the rhetoric of voter fraud and a lack of interest in registering low-income citizens, to demands to liberalize certain voting requirements and the transition to online registration, Indiana’s electoral landscape (or at least the microcosm of voter registration) appears to be shaped by a puzzling combination of ideological forces.  But perhaps Indiana has followed a steadier course than it appears to have on the surface, consistently enacting measures it thinks will achieve its stated goal of balancing “the accessibility measures of the past 40 years with higher integrity.”  After all, allowing and encouraging everyone eligible to vote to cast a ballot in a fair and accurate election, achieved by whatever means thought to be best, is the ultimate goal of election regulation.

Shanna Reulbach is a second-year student at William and Mary Law.

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