Hot race for secretary of state to enliven GOP state convention

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For weeks, candidates for the GOP nomination for secretary of state have been inundating the 1,800 delegates to the Indiana Republican Party State Convention with glossy direct-mail pieces, phone calls and personal visits in one of the most spirited convention contests in recent memory.

A former adviser to then-Gov. Mike Pence, the Knox County clerk and a former software and cybersecurity professional are all challenging the current secretary of state, Holli Sullivan, for the party’s nod as delegates prepare to gather June 17-18 in Indianapolis to choose the nominee for the November general election, as well the party’s candidates for state treasurer and auditor.

“I’ve probably been getting one to five pieces of [candidate] mail a day, and it’s been consistent and steady for probably about two weeks, maybe three,” said Kyle Babcock, a Hamilton County delegate who characterized the volume as much higher than usual.

Often, the incumbent would be unopposed for the party’s nomination. But Sullivan was just appointed secretary of state last year by Gov. Eric Holcomb to complete the term of Connie Lawson, who resigned to focus on her health and family, and opponents saw an opening. The race also is expected to test Holcomb’s influence within the state party, where some conservatives see him as too moderate.

Sullivan is still considered a frontrunner. But she faces strong opposition from Diego Morales, a tireless campaigner and former Pence adviser who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for a U.S. congressional seat in 2018.

Also seeking the nomination are David Shelton, the Knox County clerk and a licensed private investigator, and Paul Hager, a software and cybersecurity professional who retired from Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in 2020.

The four candidates are running for a post that serves as Indiana’s chief elections officer, as well as enforces the state’s securities regulations, registers new businesses, and regulates automobile dealerships.

IBJ asked each candidate to answer questions regarding election security and participation. Sullivan, a former state representative from Evansville, chose not to respond in time for IBJ’s publication deadline.

Her campaign spokeswoman, Whitney Peterson, initially scheduled an interview with Sullivan for Tuesday and asked IBJ to submit written questions in advance. IBJ complied. Then the interview time was pushed back to Wednesday. Later, Peterson cancelled the Wednesday interview and asked to reschedule it in a “week or two,” well after IBJ’s established Thursday deadline for candidate responses.

Here are the answers from the other three candidates, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What more, if anything, needs to be done to encourage voter participation in Indiana?

Hager: I would say changing the voting system. I’m running on changing the voting system in Indiana to a ranked voting system. One of the big problems (in elections) is that you tend to have a polarized system, and everything tends to evolve into binary choices. If you want more voter participation, you have to give voters an opportunity to not be forced into choosing the lesser of two evils. This applies not just in a party situation, but it also applies within the party.

A ranked voting system, whenever you have three or more candidates, works. You will rank your candidates first, second or third, based on who you like the most. But you don’t have to rank all of them. It’s no more complicated than that. In the 9th Congressional district, we have nine candidates. If I could have, I would have voted for and ranked three out of the nine. Polarization results from the fact you are basically compelled to pick from among the two candidates who have a chance of winning. If you don’t do that, you are wasting your vote. There might be a third-party candidate you are interested in, but why should you waste your vote?

Morales: The first step we need to do to encourage participation is to make sure our voters have faith in our election process. Obviously, our goal is to have only one vote for each person and make sure each legal vote is counted. One of the important steps is to make sure voters know their vote counts and each vote is important.

… There are many ways to do this. One is through public media campaigns. Number two is I’ve been promoting the very first mobile secretary of state office that would go to all 92 counties. … All the statewide offices in Indiana have a state vehicle. I just need a small van, so we can use it as a mobile office and equip it with computers. We’re just redirecting the resources. We are going to be efficient in spending taxpayers’ money. I’m more for less government and being efficient.

Shelton: I’d like to see higher voter turnout. With 28 days and two Saturdays for early voting, we’re trying to make it more accessible to the people. …  We could have later voting hours on certain days, but it’s so hard to find poll workers. There is easy accessibility right now.

The biggest problem is voter apathy. People don’t care or don’t get involved unless they feel like they’ve been wronged in most cases. I don’t know how you would combat that. If we made our state election days state holidays in November, that may turn out more voters. That’s the only way I would see that you could garner higher election turnout. The problem we run into is finding poll workers.

Sullivan: Declined to be interviewed in time for IBJ’s publication deadline

What more, if anything, needs to be done to secure Indiana’s elections?

Hager: Flash technology, including thumb drives, is a major cybersecurity problem. Paper ballots – I endorse them. My cybersecurity team agrees with that. You don’t want to use flash technology. I’ve worked on cybersecurity projects for the Department of Defense. You must have at least two-factor identification to get into a secure lab. You have to have something you take with you to identify yourself and something else you apply – a badge and an ID. Anywhere in Department of Defense facilities you cannot use any type of flash technology.

How much security does the average polling site have? It’s not very much. There is no way to have what approaches a reasonable level of security at polling sites. I’m saying the potential is there for a major hack of the election. It could be widespread. … I’m not trying to be some kind of a crazy alarmist. But I’m stunned that none of the other candidates have any sense of this. They don’t understand this type of threat.

Morales: It starts with absentee ballot process. Former state Sen. Erin Houchin introduced a bill in the 2021 session to make voters add the last four digits of their social security number or their driver’s license number to their application for an absentee ballot, which did pass this year. To me, it’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

I want to take it a step further and have voters attach a copy of their photo ID to the application to put additional safeguards in check. We need to make sure when you request a ballot, you are the one who filled it out. If you can show your ID when you show up at the polls, you can attach a photo ID to the application, in addition to (including) your signature on the ballot.

Shelton: The county clerks are the first and last lines of defense in securing elections. There are 92 ways (to run elections with 92 counties). You are expected to rely on somebody in your office or reach out to another county clerk. I would implement an election boot camp for new clerks. When they first take office, we would train them firsthand. … Elections are something you can only learn by doing them. I would rely on the experiences clerks to be instructors.

Our elections are living and breathing things, always evolving and changing. To me, it’s amazing how things differ from county to county. They should all be the same and follow the same rules. For example, Senate candidates have to secure signatures on petitions. We (clerks) have to certify the signatures are registered voters in the county and enter signatures into the statewide voter registration system. A nearby county didn’t realize they have to certify the signatures.

Sullivan: Declined to be interviewed in time for IBJ’s publication deadline.

Was there anything about Indiana’s 2020 elections that caused you concern about their security or the legitimacy of the certified results? If so, what was it?

Hager: No, in terms that I don’t think there were any races decided by cheating or errors. Was there cheating?  Yes. But I don’t think it was decisive. That answer is a decided no.

Morales: There were a few things that were concerning. The fact that only 30% of our counties have paper trails (attached to voting machines) is one of them. That opens us up to the possibility of becoming another Georgia or Arizona. Voter verifiable paper audit trails have to be in place by 2024. To me, it’s a shame because we have elections now in 2022 and municipal elections in 2023. This takes too long.

The absentee ballot process is also a concern. We need to make sure that those who request the ballots are who they say they are, and they are the same people who fill out the ballots.

Shelton: I feel like we have a very secure election process in Indiana, including in 2020. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a lot of other states in my opinion. There’s always room for improvement. I do not believe there was widespread fraud, but we had isolated incidents.

In Vanderburgh County, a person sent out pre-marked ballots for applications requesting a Democrat ballot in the 2020 primary. I’m aware of similar issues in other counties. In Jennings County, someone who had been involved in politics had been convicted of voter fraud. …. The county clerk caught that.

Sullivan: Declined to be interviewed in time for IBJ’s publication deadline.

Do you believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected the president of the United States in 2020 or that the election was stolen from Donald Trump? Please explain why.

Hager: Joe Biden, I think, won. I don’t doubt the results, but I also say there were massive illegalities. But they also didn’t change the outcome. I am a big student of polling and scientific meta polling. Based on the most reliable polling that was done, Trump lost. The polling group I followed showed Trump was gaining, but in the last six weeks, the bottom fell out. A lot of it had to do with the economy. Were their irregularities, cheating of various types, with the votes? I think there is pretty good evidence of that. Were they decisive? No.

Morales: Joe Biden is in the White House, and he’s the president. I proudly voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. We see Joe Biden is doing an awful job in office. But some secretaries of states changed election laws, 30 days before a presidential election. No one person should have the right to change election laws.

Even with this, Joe Biden was still elected the president. Obviously, it was a legitimate election, but we shouldn’t let these shenanigans happen again. I think [Biden] is doing a horrible job, terrible job. I’m proud that I voted for President Trump twice, and I will do it again.

Shelton: I can only attest about how I run my elections. I did see many states circumventing their own constitutions, with the governors and secretaries of state changing election laws to increase mail-in voting, drop-boxes and other (voting) forms. No, it’s not a good enough reason to make those changes, even in a pandemic. They did it on their own accord, and, in my opinion, their state constitutions didn’t allow them to take that action alone.

I wasn’t there, I don’t know. But it (presidential election) sure looked fishy to me. We all saw vote totals change in the middle of the night, with 100,000 votes cast at 3 a.m. for Bidden. That just doesn’t pass the smell test. I guess I’m dancing around a direct answer. I think it affected the totals in some states. I find it hard to believe Biden received 81 million votes, just by the lack of enthusiasm of people voting for him.

Sullivan: Declined to be interviewed in time for IBJ’s publication deadline.

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7 thoughts on “Hot race for secretary of state to enliven GOP state convention

  1. I liked Morales & Shelton’s answers the best. I don’t agree with “ranking” for voting. As a precinct committee person, it is very difficult to recruit and retain qualified poll workers for the elections. There needs to be statewide consistency in how county clerks conduct the elections, more training for all involved and more pay for the poll workers. Did IBJ not ask any questions about the other areas under the guidance of the Sec’y of State? Such as small business? Auto dealerships?

    1. I’m a fan of ranked-choice voting. Hager is right in that a binary system is unhelpful and ranked-choice voting in other localities and countries has proven effective. Hager seems like the most level-headed of the three. To be perfectly honest, I don’t much care for what wealthy auto dealers think. They’ve had way too much leverage as it is.

  2. “We all saw vote totals change in the middle of the night, with 100,000 votes cast at 3 a.m. for Bidden. That just doesn’t pass the smell test. I guess I’m dancing around a direct answer. I think it affected the totals in some states. I find it hard to believe Biden received 81 million votes, just by the lack of enthusiasm of people voting for him.”

    With this statement, Knox County Clerk David Shelton disqualifies himself due to his obvious belief in the conspiracy theories advanced by Trump, Giuliani, Powell, and Lindell which were – and continue to be – baseless and without evidence. Our democracy can’t afford someone of his mindset having such a crucial role in the administration of elections in Indiana.

    1. But that’s the base requirement for all these Republicans in this cycle. Their new idea to win elections to elect kooks as Secretary of State, then let them create chaos in each state to ensure the “right” person wins or that state legislators can just give the votes to Trump.