A Democratic-aligned group at the center of an Indiana investigation into possible voter fraud said Thursday it focused on registering black residents of Indiana because the state had the nation's lowest overall voter turnout in 2014.
Patriot Majority USA has ties to the Democratic Party, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and former president Bill Clinton, and is one of a host of organizations doing political work on both the right and left that are not required to disclose their donors.
According to its 2014 tax return, the most recent available, the group had $30.5 million in revenue that year and spent $13.6 million on political activities, but donors were not disclosed. Between 2009 and 2012, the last years the group disclosed donors, it received $2.2 million from labor unions, according to Federal Election Commission figures, including major contributions from teachers and public employee unions.
The group's president, Craig Varoga, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Patriot Majority has run voter registration drives in 11 states over the past several years. He said it focused solely on Indiana this year and registered black voters beginning in May.
"There are large numbers of African-Americans who are unregistered and everything should be done to help them," he said.
By the time Indiana State Police raided the group's Indianapolis office on Oct. 4, a week before the state registration deadline, Varoga said the group had collected about 45,000 voter registration applications. Most of those were completed during door-to-door visits in nine counties with large African-American populations, he said.
Indiana reliably votes Republican in presidential years, except for 2008 when a high black turnout helped President Barack Obama win the state. This year, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is Donald Trumps' GOP running mate, but a higher African-American turnout might help Hillary Clinton as well as Democrats in competitive races for the U.S. Senate and governor.
State Police have said they are investigating whether some voter registration applications submitted by Patriot Majority contained elements of fraud, including possible forged signatures.
Indiana's Republican Secretary of State, Connie Lawson, raised alarm on Tuesday when she warned of widespread voter registration fraud, saying thousands of records had been altered. But she backed off somewhat Wednesday, acknowledging that the changes could just be residents correcting their names or birth dates online ahead of the election.
Varoga said some voter registration applications the group submitted to county clerk's offices were missing information, but none were fraudulent, and Patriot Majority had flagged applications it knew were incomplete.
"Her voter file is a mess and poorly maintained," Varoga said of Lawson's comments. He said the GOP official is "relying on a flawed database to mischaracterize a law-abiding effort to register voters in the state."
Lawson said in a statement Thursday that her office began working in 2014 to make sure the data on the "voting list in Indiana were accurate." She also defended her decision to investigate ballots.
“Voters have been contacting my office for nearly two weeks," she said. "They have stated specifically that their date of birth or first name on their voter registration was changed without their knowledge. As Indiana’s Chief Elections Officer, I have a duty to ensure these voters are not disenfranchised because they think they are no longer registered. I let these voters know they are still registered and can still vote on Election Day. Time is of the essence as there are only 19 days until the election."
Attorneys for Patriot Majority have asked the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights division to look into whether the State Police investigation is an attempt to suppress the votes of black residents.
Indiana's 28.7 percent voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections was dead last among all 50 states, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, an associate political science professor at the University of Florida. Nationwide, turnout that year was the lowest of any election since 1942.
Despite sharing common goals and partisan affiliation, Indiana Democratic Party officials distanced themselves from Patriot Majority Thursday and said they have never coordinated their voter registration efforts with the group.
Peter Hanscom, the party's coordinated campaign executive director, said the party wasn't even aware Patriot Majority was operating in Indiana until news of the state police probe.
Emily Shrock, the Democratic Party's Director of Voter Protection, said if the Patriot Majority investigation ultimately shows that "they are doing something wrong, they should be prosecuted."
Patriot Majority's focus on black voters in Indiana did not come as a particular surprise to Bernard Fraga, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied minority voting habits.
He said the group may simply be trying to fill a gap as the presidential campaigns focus their attention in other states that are more competitive.
Fraga estimates blacks comprise as much as a fifth to a quarter of Indiana's Democratic voting bloc.
"It wouldn't surprise me if this group comes in and sees an opportunity to improve the chances of the Democrats, whom they seem to tend to favor, by registering this bloc in a way that the (presidential) campaigns just aren't doing right now to the same degree," Fraga said.