IBF: Hoosier community involvement high, voter turnout low

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Across Indiana, Hoosiers are committed to community involvement, with 40.2 percent of all Indiana residents belonging to at least one community organization, such as a church or neighborhood group. But while 61.4 percent of Americans voted in 2016, only 58.3 percent of Hoosiers did.

These factors were used to determine Indiana’s overall civic health as part of the Indiana Bar Foundation’s 2017 Civic Health Index. Created under the leadership of former Chief Justice Randall Shepard and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Civic Health Index surveys Hoosiers’ involvements with various civic activities to measure their civic engagement.

The goal of the index is to determine areas where the state can improve to make Indiana a better place to live, Hamilton said. One of the best ways to accomplish that goal is to strengthen civic involvement, he said.

“We’ll be a stronger state and nation with a brighter future if we have robust civic engagement,” Hamilton said.

Addressing areas where Indiana fared well on the index, Shepard said he was encouraged by Hoosiers’ high rate of community involvement, noting that activities such as attendance at public meetings — an activity that traditionally yields low public engagement — is on the rise in Indiana. He also praised the increase in Hoosier volunteer rates from 27.3 percent in 2011 to 28.7 percent in 2016. 

However, both Shepard and Hamilton raised concerns about the state’s below-average voter turnout. While voter turnout during the 2016 general elections was below the national average, Indiana traditionally fares worse during midterm elections, they said. For example, the index shows only 27.8 percent of eligible Indiana voters participated in the 2014 midterms, while the national average was 35.9 percent.

Shepard noted that Indiana’s gubernatorial elections always coincide with presidential elections, while some other states elect their governors during midterm years. He said this difference in Indiana’s voting calendar could be a contributing factor to the state’s low midterm turnout.

Among the most surprising findings Hamilton saw in the index was the fact that there seems to be a direct correlation between educational attainment and voter participation. According to the index, 80 percent of Hoosiers with at least a bachelor’s degree voted in the 2016 elections, while only 23.1 percent of Hoosiers with less than a high school diploma did the same. Likewise, households with an annual income of $75,000 or more had a turnout of 69.4 percent in 2016, compared to the 47.1 percent turnout for households earning less than $35,000 annually.

Hamilton expressed concern about the implications that disparity among voter education has on the governing process.

“The worrisome part of it is there’s a large number of people who don’t participate and whose voices are not heard and who we do not reach as a government,” Hamilton said. “It also means that government is more responsive, politicians are more responsive, to the better educated. That has good aspects to it, that has not-so-good aspects to it.”

Despite their concerns about Hoosier voter participation, both Shepard and Hamilton said overall, the results of the 2017 index – the third iteration produced by the Indiana Bar Foundation – indicate a relatively healthy level of civic engagement throughout the state. They credited civic programs such as We The People with helping to establish an early interest in civic involvement among Hoosier students, and said the state’s goal moving forward should be to find ways to expand such improvements to lead to stronger civic engagement across the state.

The full report is available here. http://inbf.org/Portals/0/INCHI_2017-10_23_17_1.pdf

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