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Voting rights groups allege Tippecanoe County violated registration laws

By:

Indiana Capital Chronicle

July 25, 2022

The League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette and elections watchdog Common Cause Indiana on Thursday filed an administrative complaint with the Indiana Election Division, alleging Tippecanoe County’s election leaders violated state and federal voter registration laws.

The county is in west-central Indiana, with Lafayette as its county seat.

“We have a long tradition of outreach at high schools and area colleges to register first-time voters,” said Ken Jones, the League’s Voter Services Committee Chair, in a news release. “Our efforts are being undermined by county election officials, who are requiring new voters to jump through additional hoops before their votes will be counted.”

Tippecanoe County Clerk of Courts Julie Roush disagreed in a statement Friday, writing, “I believe the complaint is founded on a misunderstanding of the registration process as set out in statute and in several regards, mischaracterizes the truth of the situation.”

The complaint hinges on the mass voter registration drives often conducted at schools, libraries, churches, and other venues. Voters-to-be typically register online, or fill out paper forms, which organizers deliver to the right local elections unit for processing.

The League and Common Cause — and, it appears, state election leaders — say that hand-delivered registration forms are exempt from residency checks under state and federal law. In a February 8 email to Jones — included as an exhibit in the complaint — Republican and Indiana Election Division Co-Director Brad King wrote that residency proof is required only when voting hopefuls mail applications through the U.S. Postal Service.

Tippecanoe County officials, in exhibited emails, argued that forms hand-delivered by third-parties should count as being mailed in, and therefore subject to those requirements.

 “We believe that [Indiana Code] is directing us to treat registration applications presented on behalf of another the same as [those] presented by the USPS,” Tippecanoe County Elections and Registrations Board staffer Germany Harris wrote in a March 10 email to Indiana election leaders and staffers.

Harris wrote that instead, to accommodate students that can’t outright satisfy residency requirements when their applications were submitted, the election board might accept signed letters from universities confirming that the students were actually county residents.

In a forceful response sent just 20 minutes later, Indiana Election Division Co-Director Angela Nussmeyer wrote, “If a person hand-delivers a registration form … then the Board has no legal authority to require residency documentation. … The person hand-delivering the form does NOT need to be the person registering to vote; it can be hand-delivered by a third-party.”

“Your board does not have home rule authority to establish voter registration requirements not codified in federal and state voter registration law,” added Nussmeyer, a Democrat. “The procedure documented below, in my view, does not comply with our state and federal registration laws and should no longer be followed.”

Tippecanoe Clerk Roush defended herself in a statement, writing that she didn’t tell election board staff to require residency proof for hand-delivered registration applications — but did advise them to contact registrants directly about any application snafus.

“Stacks of applications turned in by advocacy groups need a special level of review,” Roush wrote. “Often these harvested applications are illegible, include residencies other than our county or state, addresses are undeliverable as written, and even birth dates and signatures are missing.”

“Election Board staff go the extra mile to reach out to the registrant,” she added. “As a result, all eligible voter registrations get registered.”

The League and Common Cause say that Tippecanoe County’s policy resulted in at least one new voter having to cast a provisional ballot, which the voter didn’t “cure” in time for it to be counted.

The Election Division will take up the case, according to Indiana Secretary of State spokesman Allen Carter, though he couldn’t provide any timelines for the complaint’s consideration, or its resolution. State law lays out a lengthy process for handling complaints, unless they’re dismissed off the bat.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.