Indiana official holds two key positions that will help shape the national debate on voter fraud and cyber security issues
Amid concerns about the intent of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, one of the strongest checks on any potential federal overreach could be an unassuming Republican from Vice President Mike Pence’s home state.
As a member of Trump’s commission, Secretary of State Connie Lawson is charged with recommending federal policies to buckle down on potential voter fraud.
But as the incoming leader of the National Association of Secretaries of State and an advocate for state control over elections, she is skeptical of federal involvement.
That could put her at odds with the commission and its vocal vice chairman Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Making matters even trickier for Lawson, Pence — who continues to have a major influence in Indiana politics — chairs the commission.
Trump created the commission in May to study election integrity. He repeatedly has claimed without evidence that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election, costing him the popular vote. Critics worry the commission is intended to legitimize Trump’s claims and could result in more restrictive voter laws that make it harder to vote.
Initial signs of tension between Lawson and the committee’s leadership emerged this past week when, on behalf of the commission, Kobach asked for publicly available voter roll information from all 50 states, including voters’ names, addresses, birthdates and the last four digits of Social Security numbers.
The request resulted in a backlash from many state election officials, who expressed concerns about voter privacy and the commission’s motives. At least 44 states said they would not provide all of the requested data.
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Lawson said she would only provide some of the requested information, citing restrictions in Indiana’s public records law.
“My duty as secretary of state is to do what’s right here in Indiana and uphold our public records law,” Lawson said during an interview Thursday with IndyStar.
When asked if Kobach’s request was appropriate, she distanced herself from the decision, noting that she was informed, not consulted, about the request during a commission phone call the day before it was sent.
“It’s also not my duty as secretary to worry about whether he should or should not request (voter information),” she said. “I’m not here to judge why someone would want the information they request, including Secretary Kobach.”
The request is likely to be a topic of discussion this weekend at the secretaries of state association’s conference in Indianapolis. Top election officials from throughout the U.S. will gather at the Westin Hotel to discuss voter access and cybersecurity issues.
The four-day event concludes Monday with Lawson being inducted as the association’s new president during a ceremony at the Statehouse.
In that position, she’ll have to represent both supporters and detractors of Trump’s controversial commission.
“I think she’s going to be in a delicate position,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a Democrat and the association’s outgoing president.
The 68-year-old Lawson has risen through Indiana’s political ranks on steady competence, without the kind of flash that usually accompanies ambition.
Raised in rural Hendricks County, Lawson met her husband the summer before high school and later joined him in operating a real estate auctioneering business. She gained experience running elections as the Hendricks County clerk before joining the state Senate in 1996.
During her 16 years in the Senate, she led the local government and elections committees and later became majority floor leader — the highest-ranking position held by a woman in the Indiana Senate’s history.
“She’s a worker bee,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “She likes to accomplish things, and she’s not all about drawing attention to herself. It’s not a sin to have ambition, but Connie’s ambition is to do a great job at whatever she does and do it thoroughly and do it as effectively as possible.”
Ironically, it was a case of voter fraud that paved the way for Lawson’s jump to statewide office. She was appointed secretary of state in 2012, after her predecessor, Charlie White, was convicted of six felonies, including voter fraud.
Advocate for voter identification
Like Kobach, the nation’s leading firebrand for restrictive voter laws, Lawson has supported more restrictive voting laws in an effort to deter fraud.
However, she thinks states — not the federal government — should implement such policies.
“I think (Indiana) could serve as a model, but again, it’s about what the states want to do,” Lawson said. “I don’t believe it should be forced down any state’s throat.”
In Indiana, Lawson championed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country and oversaw a voter roll maintenance process that removed more than 480,000 names from Indiana’s voting logs.
Those measures came on top of Indiana’s already early poll-closing time, which Democrats failed to extend during Lawson’s tenure as elections chairwoman. The 6 p.m. closing time is the earliest in the nation.
“Look at her record in the General Assembly,” said John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. “She’s been in lockstep with every piece of Republican legislation that has come out that, in my opinion, restricts the right to vote.”
He and other Democrats say concerns about fraud are overblown and fear they will be used to pass voting restrictions that will make it more difficult for minorities and low-income people to vote.
Lawson is far from dismissive of voter fraud claims. She frequently cites a 2013 case involving a former Democrat lawmaker who was convicted of absentee ballot fraud. And just before the 2016 election, she sent a letter to county elections officials statewide warning about potential voter fraud.
But, unlike Trump, she doesn’t think it’s rampant — at least not in Indiana.
“I wouldn’t use the word rampant, but since I’ve been secretary we have had fraud take place,” Lawson said. “I would say our system prevents as much of it as any state system.”
‘Easier to vote, harder to cheat’
While Lawson has pushed some restrictive laws, Democrats in Indiana and nationwide see Lawson as somebody they can work with, in part because she has tempered her hardline stance on issues like voter IDs with other efforts to make voting and registration easier.
In the Senate, she championed a bill that allowed in-person early voting without requiring voters to give a reason for why they couldn’t vote on Election Day. (Voters are still required to give a reason if they vote absentee).
She authored another bill that created county vote centers, where voters can cast ballots regardless of precinct. And she carried a measure legalizing online voter registration — a convenience Lawson said may not have been possible in the Republican-dominated Senate without the state’s strict photo ID requirement.
“One of the ways I convinced my colleagues that we should allow online voter registration was because we had photo ID,” Lawson said.
The improvements to voter access didn’t quell criticism over the ID law, but they did convince some Democrats that she wasn’t just trying to suppress the vote. That reputation has carried over into her work as secretary of state.
“I haven’t viewed her as being overly aggressive,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “I don’t view her as someone who has gone out of the way to deprive people (of) the right to vote.”
That’s high praise at a time of unprecedented partisan divide over election issues.
Despite the rancorous debates surrounding voter fraud and Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election, Lawson describes her approach to election issues as an all-of-the-above one.
“It’s been my mantra, I guess,” she said. “Making it easier to vote, harder to cheat.”
That balancing act will be put to the test not only in her role on Trump’s commission but also after she takes the reigns of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
That new role will require her to represent both Republican and Democratic election officials, even as she serves on a commission that causes major concerns among many of the nation’s top state election officials. The association’s members include 33 Republicans, 21 Democrats and one independent.
“This is an interesting and tough time to be president of an organization like this, because obviously we’re in a time where these election issues are front and center,” Merrill, the outgoing president, said. “This is a time where it’s very hard to bring people together around these issues, and I think Connie is going to be very good at bringing consensus to this group.”
This weekend’s conference will be a kind of proving ground for Lawson. She and Merrill co-chaired a closed session on cybersecurity on Saturday, where representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were expected to brief election officials.
Lawson has clashed with homeland security officials in recent months because of her belief that individual states — not the federal government — should be in charge of running elections.
In January, Lawson fired off a letter criticizing former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s decision during the final weeks of the Obama administration to deem election infrastructure as “critical infrastructure.” The federal government uses that designation for assets considered essential to national security, such as the electric grid, water supply system and financial institutions.
Lawson and many other state election officials remain unsure about the implications of the designation, which the Trump administration has kept in place.
“Does it mean the federal government can be in Indiana at our precincts?” she said. “At our absentee ballot counting sites? Exactly what do they mean when they say ‘critical infrastructure’?”
She also has criticized federal homeland security officials for failing to quickly pass along information about potential security breaches, such as a recent email hacking incident involving voting machine vendor VR Systems, which provides electronic poll books to six Indiana counties.
“I shouldn’t be in my car and hearing on the radio that a voting system vendor here in Indiana was a possible victim of identity theft,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the way the chief election official finds out about these problems.”
While state’s rights often divide Republicans and Democrats, secretaries of state tend to be united on the issue when it comes to state control of elections, Merrill said.
“I can’t think of a secretary that disagrees with that honestly,” she said.
In that sense, Lawson has struck a sweet spot with her criticism of the homeland security designation.
The question is: Can she continue to find common ground on election issues as she juggles her jobs as Indiana’s top election official, a member of Trump’s commission and the leader of the secretaries of state association?
And if Trump’s commission takes a turn toward requiring more stringent voting requirements, will she side with her party’s leader or maintain her staunch opposition to federal interference in state elections?
Lawson downplayed any such conflicts on the horizon, despite Kobach’s controversial information request this past week.
“Running elections are the state’s responsibility,” she said. “I don’t think it is necessarily the intent of the commission to change that in any way.”
But she acknowledged she isn’t sure how Pence and Kobach plan to use the requested data.
“I’ve read that in 41 states it’s not publicly available, so I’m not sure where they will go with it,” she said. “We really didn’t discuss that, so I don’t know.”
Lawson said she wants security information from the federal government, but not in exchange for giving up state control of elections. If she has an agenda, that’s it, she said.
“I strongly believe in state’s rights,” she said, “and you know, if you’re not at the table, you don’t have a voice.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at (812) 549-1429. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.