A progressive political group's attack ads against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate, drew condemnation Wednesday from Indiana State Police Supt. Doug Carter, who described the group's allegations of voter suppression as "completely false."
Even as fellow Republicans have denounced presidential candidate Donald Trump's claims of a "rigged" election replete with voter fraud, top officials in Indiana contend that there may be a real problem with the state's voter registration database. But political experts in the state say the significance of this news may be overblown.
"Until there is evidence that someone has actually been stopped from voting or has tried to use a fake registration or something, I think this is more a tempest in a teapot at this stage," Indiana University professor Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that her office had discovered thousands of voter records with first names or dates of birth that were altered for unknown reasons. The changes were made on paper forms, at license branches, and online, she said.
"We believe this may be a case of voter fraud and have turned our findings over to the State Police, who are currently conducting an investigation into alleged voter fraud," Ms. Lawson said.
In his statement Wednesday, Superintendent Carter thanked Lawson for coming forward and said the information she provided could provide evidence of forgery by members of the progressive group under investigation, the Indiana Voter Registration Project, a subsidiary of Patriot Majority USA.
"Because of these new revelations, the magnitude of the possible fraud involved and with the election less than three weeks away, I have directed all available resources within the Indiana State Police to assist with this investigation," Carter said, confirming that more than two dozen state police detectives are working the case in 56 of the state's 92 counties.
"While I cannot speak to the specifics of this investigation I have the highest level of confidence there will be County Prosecutors in multiple Indiana counties who will hold a number of people criminally responsible for their actions," Carter added, condemning the progressive group for launching a political attack instead of telling Indiana voters they would cooperate with investigators.
The group launched a series of radio and print advertisements earlier this week, accompanied by the website DontBetrayIndiana.com, accusing Mr. Pence of disenfranchising as many as 45,000 mostly African American voters by directing police to raid the group's Indianapolis office. A spokeswoman for the group said workers who reviewed tens of thousands of applications flagged only "a small handful" of applications as containing potentially incomplete or incorrect information.
Some election officials expressed concern that Lawson might have been too quick to characterize her discovery as potential voter fraud. Kathy Richardson, a Republican elections administrator in Hamilton County just north of Indianapolis, said she had not received complaints about the anomalies.
"I don't know how you distinguish between people purposely changing their information and those who didn't," Ms. Richardson told The Indianapolis Star. "In an election like this, where everyone wants to vote, you are going to get a lot of changes. People change their first names or last names or change their addresses. Especially people who haven't voted in a while."
Even if altering an individual registration is relatively easy, altering thousands of registration forms online would require a small army, Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, told the Star.
"Coordinated voter fraud would be very complicated and labor intensive," Mr. Downs said. "I don't know how many people have that type of organization. And creating the false registration record is only part of it. Then you would have to get the fake people into the voting places to cast ballots."
Professor Helmke, who is registered to vote in Allen County, tells the Monitor that he has full faith and confidence in locally elected officials, local election boards, state election officials, and Indiana State Police to investigate allegations of voter fraud appropriately and in good faith.
"If there’s some problems with the way that things are showing up, I think they can get them fixed up in plenty of time," Helmke said, adding that the political component of these controversies is primarily a creature of timing.
"Everyone reads politics into everything that goes on, I think, in the last few weeks before an election," he said.
Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, says since Americans are so highly polarized by party, this news in Indiana will likely be interpreted along party lines, both for Republicans and supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I would assume that most Trump supporters would say, ‘Yes, of course, that’s clear evidence that there is voter fraud going on,’ and Clinton supporters would say, ‘There they go again,’” Dr. Hershey tells the Monitor.
Hershey, who is registered to vote in Monroe County and declined to state her party affiliation for the sake of avoiding partisan perceptions in the classroom, noted that research has shown repeatedly that “at-the-polls voter fraud is as close to nonexistent as it’s possible to be.”