Democrats haven’t won the race for Secretary of State since 1990. Jim Harper hopes to change that this year as he faces incumbent Republican Connie Lawson and Libertarian Mark Rutherford. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Brandon Smith talks with Harper about the race’s key issues.
Brandon Smith: So, I think a topic – when it comes to the Secretary of State’s race – that’s on a lot of people’s minds is the issue of election security. Should Hoosiers feel like Indiana’s elections are secure?
Jim Harper: What we do know is that our state leadership is not doing enough to ensure that our voting machines are secure in the state of Indiana. We know that our voting machines are vulnerable in this state and we know that Indiana – and the entire country – is a target. What I’m concerned about is that we haven’t taken enough steps to make sure that we’re securing our voting machines this year.
Smith: So, what steps would you take?
Harper: I’m a strong supporter of making sure that there’s a voter verified paper trail – paper ballots, essentially – in every county. Indiana is one of only 13 states that does not require a voter verified paper trail. Most counties do not have them. I think we that need to enact them. I wish we had done it this year, but absolutely we need to do it for 2020.
Smith: And now that’s something that Connie Lawson has talked about, which is the idea of she does want to move towards that. These recommendations came out from the national level about all these things that states should be doing, some of which Indiana has been doing, some of which – notably the paper ballots – it is not. But that also requires money so is Connie Lawson just in a bind for this particular cycle?
Harper: We could have had paper ballots this year. The reason that we do not is because Secretary Lawson did not show leadership on the issue. There are federal funds available that could have helped us this year change to paper machines in every county. Secretary Lawson decided not to use it for that purpose. And moreover, she also decided not to go to the legislature at any point in the last two years to request funding to make sure that we upgrade our machines.
Smith: Beyond election security, there’s the issue of election reforms. I’ll start with this, which is – is the Secretary of State the person who should be advocating for reforms like independent redistricting?
Harper: Yes. The Secretary of State is the chief elections officer so I think it’s critical that the person in that office show leadership on making sure our election system is more fair and more robust. You mentioned nonpartisan redistricting. There is no bigger threat to our democracy than extreme partisan gerrymandering. You cannot run fair elections with unfair districts and so it’s incumbent upon the Secretary of State to take leadership on that issue.
Smith: Beyond redistricting, which seems like the headline grabber when we talk about election reform, are there other reforms you think Indiana needs?
Harper: Absolutely. We need to work to improve Indiana’s voter turnout. Voter turnout has been historically very low in this state over the last several cycles. In 2014, we had the lowest voter turnout in the country; we were 51 out of 51. I’m a strong supporter of longer voting hours – Indiana has some of the shortest voting hours in the country. I also think that we need to expand voting by mail. Voting by mail is secure; it’s also something that we know improves turnout.
Smith: On the issue of balance, Connie Lawson – when I posed that question – talked about a very recent example of the Democratic Party accidentally sent out faulty absentee ballot applications to a lot of voters. Connie Lawson was alerted to the problem, stepped up and said ‘I want clerks to accept these.’ Isn’t that a good case for the balance is already there because she’s acting in a nonpartisan way?
Harper: So, I think it’s pretty clear that Secretary Lawson has done a lot of things that have made it harder for people to vote in this state and that have reduced our voter turnout. And initially Secretary Lawson was not saying that those forms should be accepted. It’s pretty clear that the absentee ballot forms complied with the spirit of state law. Obviously, there were some issues with them and I’m glad that everything got resolved. But initially Secretary Lawson wasn’t pushing for those to be accepted. And there are other examples, like the voter purge last year. Secretary Lawson eliminated about 500,000 Hoosier voters from the voter rolls. A federal judge later came in and said that that was illegal, that that violated federal law. I don’t think that that was an area of bipartisan compromise or consensus.