New report shows Indiana’s civic health improving but chronic problems remain

After offering recommendations to improve the state’s civic health in 2019, the Indiana Bar Foundation and its partners recently took an assessment and found Hoosiers are excelling at improving civic education but continuing to stumble at increasing voter turnout.

The assessment is included in the 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index, which was released at a press conference on Jan. 25. In addition, since the first of five indices was released in 2011, the 2021 edition includes a review and analysis of the data collected over the past decade.

“The data can and should give us some pause to reflect and continue to advocate for Indiana civic health, but there are reasons to celebrate,” said Ellen Szarleta, primary author of the index and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence at Indiana University Northwest.

Szarleta highlighted Hoosiers’ social and community connectedness as well as donations to charitable and religious organizations.

Since 2010, the volunteering rate in Indiana has increased from 26.1% to 34%, moving the state’s national rank from 32 to 18. Also, 50.6% of the state’s residents made a donation in 2020 compared to 45.6% in 2010. This uptick improved Indiana’s national ranking for donations from 45 to 33.

“So we see some of these indicators definitely showing promise for us and also informing us what it is that Hoosiers prefer to do when it comes to the forms of civic engagement that are so vital to us,” she said.

With the release of the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index, the authors made two recommendations: improve civic education and increase voter turnout with the goal of moving Indiana from the bottom 10 states to the top 10 in participation.

The work on civic education was led by the bar foundation. Since 2019, a civic education task force, chaired by Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, convened and issued a report offering a roadmap for teaching civics in Indiana schools.

From there, the Indiana General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1384, which not only created a permanent civic education commission but also required that one semester of civics be added to the middle school curriculum.

“We’re extremely pleased with the overall progress we’ve seen in advancing civic education over the past two years since the last civic health index in 2019,” Dunlap said.

However, Dunlap noted more work remains, particularly in the areas of creating additional civics content for pre-service teachers and offering more professional development opportunities for teachers in the classroom.

“We also want the student experience and civics courses to include ways to help them for their entire civic life as adults,” he continued. “This can include the incorporation of civics projects, the use of authentic assessments in courses like the We the People program … and also the creation of more opportunities for community engagement and partnership in school curriculum. These real-world applications can really be influential in establishing a benchmark for students to establish these habits when they’re in school and continue them throughout their life.”

The work on improving voter turnout in Indiana was led by the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping Hoosiers informed about candidates and issues.

Bill Moreau, co-founder and president of the foundation and former partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, walked through a detailed analysis of Hoosier participation in the 2020 presidential election. Although more Indiana voters cast a ballot in 2020, the turnout still lagged the national average.

The goal was to move Indiana into the top 10 states in voter participation, but even though voter turnout increased 9.3% in 2020 over 2016, the Hoosier State’s turnout rank actually dropped five spots from 41st to 46th. For the 2020 presidential election, 61% of Hoosiers voted, almost three percentage points higher than 2016, but the turnout in the top 10 states averaged more than 75%.

“Sadly, the numbers show we have a very, very long way to go before we as a state capture our place among the top 10,” Moreau said.

Citing Indiana voting data from 1924 to 1976, Moreau pointed out that the state consistently logged some of the highest turnout in the nation. The 2021 civic health index noted the most likely causes of the state’s voter apathy are the absence of contested elections and the voting laws, which are described as being some of the most restrictive in the country.

Retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, credited with providing invaluable leadership on the civic health index, also noted the number of polling places has declined in the state. He reviewed the data and found turnout dropped when Indiana began cutting the number of voting locations.

“Even if you had very good polling places and you advertised them and the press put out the addresses and you could go into your computer and find out where you’re supposed to go, it simply was quite a difference just because you couldn’t go down to your neighborhood school or library (to vote),” Shepard said.

For more on the 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index, see the Feb. 2 issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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