State Government and Government & Economic Development and Government and Law

Political stakes are high as White goes on trial

January 29, 2012

Charlie White might not have been aware he could be breaking election law when he registered to vote at his ex-wife's address in Indiana's May 2010 Republican primary. But whether he acted deliberately or out of ignorance, experts say the action undermines the credibility of the state's top elections office.

"There are two scenarios, and neither one is very flattering," said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville. "Either he was not aware of the law — and that doesn't raise a lot of respect — that you have to live in the district you represent, (or) if he did know, that's even worse."

After more than a year of legal wrangling, White's fate now rests with the jurors who will be selected starting Monday in Noblesville. Their task: to determine whether the state's top election official is guilty of voter fraud, perjury and theft.

If convicted, White could face prison time and be forced to give up his office. But Dion said the stakes are even higher.

Though White himself has downplayed the power of his office, the secretary of state is the ultimate arbiter of Indiana elections and tops the ballot in off-year elections. The state constitution gives the secretary of state authority to oversee elections by registering candidates and certifying winners, even in case of a recount. The office also enforces campaign finance laws. And the party that holds the office gets the deciding vote among precinct officials who run local elections, Dion noted.

"It's remarkable, because his position is charged with being the chief election officer for the entire state and overseeing the election laws. Out of all things, that's not what you want to be charged with," said Dion, referring to the voter fraud charge.

The trial, which could last up to three weeks, is the latest legal stop for White since Democrats first accused him of lying about where he lived when he voted in the 2010 primary.

One judge already has ruled that White should be ousted and replaced by Vop Osili, the Democrat he defeated. If White is convicted on even one of the seven felony counts against him, Gov. Mitch Daniels — a fellow Republican — would appoint his replacement. But White likely would appeal a guilty verdict, and even if he is removed from office, odds are there will be a court fight over who gets to replace him.

The outcome of the case, whenever it occurs, "has far-reaching political consequences," Dion said. "Lasting political consequences."

How did White end up in this position?

Democrats claim White lied about where he lived because he had moved out of the district he represented on the Fishers Town Council and would have had to give up his seat.

White, who declined an interview request through his attorney, has called what happened a mistake that arose from an "unconventional" living arrangement during his campaign for secretary of state.

"He was living out of his car. He literally had a lot of his clothes in his car. He ate out of his car. That's where most of his possessions were," White's ex-wife, Nicole Mills, told The Associated Press in June.

When he wasn't on the road living out of his car, White says he was sleeping in his ex-wife's basement, an arrangement they both acknowledge might seem unusual but one they say worked for them. White's fiancée Michelle, now his second wife, says she didn't believe it was right for them to live together before they were married, so when White bought a condo, she moved in, but he didn't.

White says he registered to vote at his ex-wife's address because that's where he was living. Critics — chiefly Democrats — say he knew he was going to move into the condo and should have registered there but didn't so he could continue drawing his $1,000-a-month salary as a Fishers councilman.

They say that meant he was ineligible to run for office and asked the state recount commission to remove him from office, even as a Hamilton County grand jury indicted him.

White has resisted calls to resign from Democrats and Republicans alike. The Indiana Recount Commission upheld his candidacy, though its chairman scolded him for "treading the line." Democrats appealed to a Marion County judge, who eventually ruled that the commission should certify Osili as the winner of the 2010 race. Both sides then asked the Indiana Supreme Court to step in, but the high court hasn't yet agreed.

James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University, said the situation is particularly embarrassing for Republicans, since they pushed the state's voter ID law as a way to prevent voter fraud.

"It's a big political issue," McCann said. "You think from the Republicans' standpoint they'd love to see it go away."

White has protested his innocence and has steadfastly refused to quit, maintaining he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

The Supreme Court hasn't indicated whether it will take up the case. Meanwhile, White must head back to court.

"It's like a train wreck that's going in slow motion," Dion said. "Just when you think it can't get worse, it gets worse. If it were a movie, you wouldn't believe it was happening."

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