Julia Vaughn: Better ways to improve voting than police at the polls

Julia Vaughn

Secretary of State Diego Morales’ recent mailing on the topic of election interference was not just wasteful (according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle, the office blew $35,000 in federal grant money to mail information readily available online to 600 people). It was yet another example of Indiana elected officials taking our state in the wrong direction on voting issues.

We’ve spent years going backward on election reform and we need a new path that leads to a reenergized and engaged electorate. Given that we had record low voter turnout for the primary election this year, it needs to happen soon.

While the issue of election interference is an important one, particularly with examples of possible intimidation at polling sites, the Secretary of State’s Office seems to encourage local law enforcement’s close involvement in policing the polls to keep election workers safe, but that’s exactly the wrong approach.

Efforts to secure our election against threats of intimidation must consider the history of police officers targeting and intimidating voters of color at the polls, especially given that many communities continue to experience racial profiling and over-policing. In some places, particularly communities of color, law enforcement presence won’t create a welcoming environment and could cause intimidation and have a chilling effect on voter turnout.

According to the Indiana Civic Health Index, Indiana ranked 50th for voter turnout in 2022, so we need our chief election official to be mindful of how efforts to make election workers more secure could not only be perceived as voter suppression in some communities, but could also negatively impact turnout. We hope to meet with Morales and his office soon to share these concerns and offer our advice on dealing with election interference, which relies heavily on de-escalating these situations before they blow up into incidents that impact both election officials and voters.

Another preemptive action to shore up public confidence and improve elections would have been a much better use of the $35,000 that was spent on Morales’ election interference mailing. Membership in ERIC – the Electronic Registration Information Center – costs $25,000 to initiate and would bring Indiana into a group with the goals of improving the accuracy of the voting rolls and increasing access to voter registration.

Before we could join ERIC though, Morales needs to convince legislators to rescind the foolish law they passed several years ago which actually forbids the state from joining this collective effort at well-planned and executed voter list maintenance.

It was never clear why state lawmakers and then Secretary of State Connie Lawson felt the need to proactively take ERIC membership off the table, although I suspect it had something to do with Lawson’s appointment to the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity. That group was chaired by former Vice President Mike Pence and imploded shortly after it took off because of a focus on mistruths and misinformation.

ERIC is the opposite of that kind of group. It was founded in 2012 by the Pew Charitable Trust and seven diverse states: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington; since then, 17 more have joined. The ERIC data center utilizes tools that allow states to securely and safely compare voter data to improve the accuracy of the voting rolls and it also identifies unregistered individuals who are eligible to vote, allowing member states to conduct targeted outreach if they choose.

ERIC’s two-pronged approach to voter list maintenance should guide Secretary Morales’ approach to election intimidation. ERIC recognizes that clean voter rolls and increasing voter registration cannot only coexist, they can be done together. Likewise, we can stop election interference while ensuring all voters feel welcome. It’s just going to take a more nuanced approach than police at the polls.

Julia Vaughn is the executive director of Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. This commentary previously appeared at indianacapitalchronicle.com. Send comments to [email protected].