Voter purge in key Indiana County goes overboard

October 26, 2012

La Porte County Democratic Party Chairman John Jones began to suspect there was problem late last week when he started getting calls from early voters who said they'd been turned away by election officials as ineligible.

The county set out in 2011 to clean up its rolls, purging those who had failed to vote in the previous two federal election cycles. The exercise was expected to involve around 800 names, many of them people who were dead, incarcerated or had left the northwest Indiana county about 60 miles east of Chicago.

But Jones was hearing from residents who were quite alive and had voted in 2008. When state officials looked at the list of cancelled voters, it turned out that the purge was more of a mini-massacre. Records showed more than 13,000 voters had been dropped, about 16 percent of the 80,000 La Porte voters registered in 2008. Jones has asked for a Justice Department investigation.

"We didn't expect this in our county," said Jones. "We're not going to tolerate this. We have a lot of citizens who are outraged."

The purge was supervised by the county's Republican co-director of voter registration, Donna Harris, who happens to be married to La Porte County Republican Chairman Keith Harris, who appointed her to the job in February 2010. He also happens to be on the ballot this year, as a candidate for circuit court clerk. (He ran unsuccessfully for other offices prior to hiring his wife). Much of the pruning of the rolls was done while the Democratic co-director was out for three months on medical leave.

None of this will have much of a bearing on the presidential race. Indiana, which went narrowly for President Obama in 2008, is expected to be in Mitt Romney's column this year. But the U.S. Senate contest between Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) and Republican Richard Mourdock  is a toss-up. La Porte is in Donnelly's Second Congressional District, in other words the heart of his base.

Donna Harris did not return a phone message Friday. But Keith Harris said that there was no wrongdoing. "What I think actually happened was inadequate training, which resulted in a misunderstanding of the process," he said. "That led to this unfortunate incident happening. I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of it. We need to look at this and see what kind of checks and balances need to be put in place."

Asked about the appointment of his wife to the sensitive post, Harris said he consulted with state election officials and was told he was permitted "to appoint anyone I wanted provided I thought they were qualified to do the job."

Jones said he doesn't buy the idea that training was an issue. "I don't believe it for a minute," he said. In the week since the size of the purge was discovered, about 11,000 voters have been restored to the rolls, with the remainder appearing to be genuinely ineligible. What's not known is how many qualified early voters were turned away. Jones said the party will mail notices to the 11,000 telling them that they were wrongly denied the right to vote.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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