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No easy fix for waning voter interest

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In November, less than 30 percent of registered voters in Indiana’s five largest counties cast ballots in their municipal elections. Low voter turnout – particularly in mid-term elections – has been a problem in Indiana for decades, according to a report released this year.

The report – the Indiana Civic Health Index – showed that in 2010, Indiana ranked 48th in the nation in voter turnout. And the lack of enthusiasm for voting has been a trend since 1974.

While many people are aware of Indiana’s poor voter engagement, the biggest challenge in finding a solution may be pinpointing its cause.

Behind the research

Leading the efforts to assess Indiana’s civic health are former Congressman Lee Hamilton, director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University, and Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

“I’d have to say that the work that Congressman Hamilton and I have been doing so far has been descriptive, not prescriptive … and what we’re now doing is talking with people about their reactions to their report,” Shepard said.

The two have been traveling around the state to discuss the report and have presented on its findings in Gary, South Bend, Evansville and Fort Wayne.

“We were both quite surprised at the results showing that Indiana’s level of turnout is toward the back of the pack,” Shepard said. “Most people would say Indiana is a place where politics is a contact sport, and lots of people are engaged in it, but the Civic Health Index said we ranked in the 40s.”

The report shows that in 2010, Indiana’s voter turnout rate was 39.4 percent, six percentage points lower than the national average. Indiana ranked 36th in turnout in 2006, at 45.5 percent

But one explanation for Indiana’s low voter turnout may be faulty data.

Ball State University political science professors Raymond Scheele, Joe Losco, Gary Crawley and Sally Jo Vasicko wrote about voter turnout in their paper, “Improving Election Administration with Vote Centers: Toward a National Model.” They wrote that when voter turnout is calculated by dividing the number of voters by the number of registered voters, the result is merely a rough estimate, because the registered voter list may be outdated and include names of people who have died, moved or are otherwise disenfranchised. In Indiana, people who are incarcerated cannot vote.

Even if voter turnout numbers are accurate, they may not necessarily reflect how connected people are to local government. Shepard offered an example of how that reality plays out in voting booths.

“One of the things I remember after studying the 2008 results – there were something like almost 100,000 people who went to the polls and cast a vote in the presidential election and turned around and left. These are people who chose not to cast a vote for United States senator or governor,” Shepard said.

According to the Indiana Secretary of State’s office, turnout in the 2008 election was 62 percent – four percentage points higher than in 2004. In 2002, turnout was 39 percent. Analysts say that a competitive election and get-out-the-vote initiatives are likely responsible for the surge in 2008 turnout.

Ease of voting

The U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey shows that in 2010, five of the 10 states with the best voter registration and turnout allow Election Day registration. North Dakota – the only state that does not require voter registration – had an eligible-voter turnout rate of 55.7 percent. But it’s not clear whether early voting alone explains these higher numbers.

In the BSU political science paper, the authors wrote that while voting centers make voting more convenient, the ease of accessibility is not substantial enough to draw large numbers of people who have traditionally not voted in the past.

This year, Evansville – Shepard’s hometown – offered for the first time 15 satellite voting centers, allowing people to vote at any of those locations. Shepard said that early voter turnout was higher, although overall turnout was not.

Under Indiana law, a municipality’s election board must unanimously agree to satellite voting centers before they can be established.

In 2008, early voting centers were challenged in the case John B. Curley, et al., v. Lake County Board of Elections, et al. The Lake County election board’s two Republican board members had voted against the satellite centers, but an attorney advised Democratic board members that a unanimous vote wasn’t needed.
 

bodensteiner-ivan-mug Bodensteiner

John Curley, chairman of the Lake County Indiana Republican Central Committee, filed the lawsuit. Valparaiso University School of Law Professor Ivan Bodensteiner was one of the attorneys for the appellees in that case.

“At some level, although it was not the basis for the claims that were being raised in the 2008 Indiana Court of Appeals decision with respect to the voting centers, certainly under the surface was the idea that the northern part of Lake County has a much higher percentage of racial minorities than the southern part … and if the case had been successful, meaning pre-Election Day voting could take place only in Crown Point, that would’ve made it much more difficult for racial minorities to vote,” Bodensteiner said.

“My personal opinion about the issue is that we ought to be taking steps to facilitate voting rather than taking steps that might be designed to or have the effect of discouraging voting,” he said.

The appellate court ruled the election board had not violated the law when it allowed early voting in the other Lake County Circuit Court offices in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago and that Curley failed to prove the trial court abused its discretion when it issued an injunction prohibiting the board from terminating the voting centers.

Voter ID

Some people oppose Indiana’s law that requires voters to show photo identification at their polling places, claiming it can create barriers to voting for people who don’t drive or may not have the means to obtain the documentation needed for a state-issued ID card.

In William Crawford, et al., v. Marion County Election Board, et al., the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. But the opinion was not unanimous.

In his dissent, the late judge Terence Evans wrote, “Let’s not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.” Evans went on to say that while the law had allegedly been designed to prevent in-person voter fraud, no one in Indiana’s history had ever been charged with that crime and that nationwide, little evidence of in-person voter fraud existed. “If that’s the case, where is the justification for this law? Is it wise to use a sledgehammer to hit either a real or imaginary fly on a glass coffee table? I think not,” Evans wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the constitutionality of the law.

Education and other factors

In his scholarly article, “Voter Turnout in the 2010 Midterm Election,” Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, reported that states that have better-educated populations tend to have better voter turnout. And Shepard agrees.

“There’s an undeniable connection in the work that’s done in the educational field,” he said. “That’s one of the many reasons why Indiana created the Courts in the Classroom project – there’s a lot of value to exposing democracy and the courts to students.”

The Civic Health Index shows that 45 percent of Indiana citizens say they never discuss politics, which creates a void of conversation. “One logical place to fill that void is in the classroom,” the report states.

But Indiana is earning high marks in one area of voter engagement. On Dec. 13, the Pew Center on the States released a report assessing state election information websites. The report, “Being Online is Not Enough,” is an update to its 2008 report. It gave Indiana’s Secretary of State website a score of 80.6 out of 100, with 100 being a perfect score, in overall usability. That score indicates Indiana is one of 11 states with the highest ranking of “good.”•
 

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