It started last week, when Allen County voter registration officials got a message from the Indiana Secretary of State’s office warning about an Indianapolis-based group that was submitting possibly fraudulent voter registration forms.
Then, on Thursday, a big stack of forms from the group landed in their office.
Tuesday, Allen County was added to a state police probe of the practices of the Indiana Voter Registration Project that has widened to include nine counties, including Allen.
The status of voters who registered through the group – and the impact of the probe on the Nov. 8 election – remains unknown, officials said.
Barry Schust, Allen County’s Republican voter registration board member, said about 1,000 forms from the group were submitted to the local office. About 150 had addresses that weren’t in Allen County, he said, and more than half of the forms "had some form of issue."
"There’s many that are incomplete or nearly illegible, and a major (concern) is where you write the driver’s license or state ID number or Social Security number," Schust said.
"There’s an option to check ‘none,’ but it’s a rare occasion to be a citizen and have neither," he said. But on many of the forms, "none" was checked, he said.
Copies of the group’s forms were turned over to state police Tuesday morning, Schust said.
Also Tuesday morning, state police detectives raided the Indiana Voter Registration Project’s office in Indianapolis and announced that an investigation that began in August had expanded from Hendricks and Marion counties to include Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Lake and Madison counties, in addition to Allen County.
"The expanded number of counties involved leads investigators to believe that the total number of potentially fraudulent records may be in the hundreds, thus creating a potential to disenfranchise many voters" who thought they were legitimately signing up to vote, a state police news release said.
Victims may not discover the fraud until they go to vote, and that would result in them having to cast a provisional ballot, the news release said.
Investigators said the potentially fraudulent information included a combination of made-up names and addresses, real names with made-up or incorrect addresses, and false dates of births with real names as well as "combinations of all these examples" and, possibly, other irregularities.
Voter registration officials in Muncie have questioned about 530 registrations submitted by the group, according to news reports.
The investigation began in August, when at least 10 forms in Marion and Hendricks counties in the Indianapolis metro area were confirmed to have fraudulent information.
When officials routinely questioned information and called the voters, they said they had never registered, according to a report in the Indianapolis Star.
The Star reported Sept. 23 that Patriot Majority USA is a so-called "dark money" group behind the Indiana Voter Registration Project.
Patriot Majority, a nonpartisan charitable organization, is not required to disclose its donors. However, the newspaper reported the group is run by Craig Varoga, described as a liberal Democratic strategist and staffer on former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 national campaign who now runs several organizations affiliated with Patriot Majority and funded primarily by labor groups.
Patriot Majority had more than $30 million in contributions in 2014, its last reportable year, with more than $8 million from one undisclosed donor, the newspaper reported.
Varoga told the newspaper that Indiana was chosen for a registration drive because the state had the lowest voter turnout in the nation in the 2014 election.
The state is also in the midst of hotly contested races for governor and the U.S. Senate.
Varoga told the Star the group has turned in about 40,000 registrations, but he declined to say where canvassers were operating.
Varoga accused Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, who is a Republican, and the state police of waging a politically motivated investigation, the Star reported.
State police said documents on what they were seeking at the project’s office were sealed until Oct. 3.
Schust said he did not know where the project’s registrars were operating locally. He said the forms received in Allen County bore dates from Sept. 11 through the end of the month. Those with addresses outside the county were sent to the appropriate office.
"We encourage third parties (doing registration drives) to use a laptop and register voters online," he said, noting that the Indiana Voter Registration Project used paper forms.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen to applications of people who thought they were registering," Schust added. "We have a call into the secretary of state’s office and are waiting to hear back."
Jessica Hockemeyer, voter registration/election supervisor in Whitley County, said the forms posed a problem for officials. She said she’d received three from Allen County officials.
"But one didn’t have an address (with a street) on it, so I can’t process it. They only put down the city. I put out a phone call but I haven’t gotten a response, and I can’t mail them anything because I don’t have an address, so I can’t know if they’re real," she said.
Voter registration officials in Huntington County said they did not know whether they had received any registrations from the Indiana Voter Registration Project, and officials in Adams County were unavailable Tuesday.
The investigation is continuing and may take several more weeks or months, state police said.