In a year without an election, The Indiana Citizen, a nonprofit focused on increasing voter turnout, is transforming its website into a source of news and information about Hoosier politics, elected officials and civic issues that attorney co-founder Bill Moreau described as “our new venture into accountability journalism.”
The Indiana Citizen’s website is sticking to the organization’s core mission of increasing civic engagement. Across the top of its home page is a banner inviting visitors to find out if they are registered to vote, and along the right side of the page is “The Tools of Citizenship” section that includes links to help Hoosiers file a consumer complaint, make a public records request and learn more about their elected officials.
New to the site are the news articles. Produced by the Citizen’s staff and by volunteers, the stories are about bills in the Indiana General Assembly as well as activities of state and federal officeholders. Also, the site is getting copy through its partners, the Statehouse File, the news site run by Franklin College journalism students, and Adam Wren, author of the Importantville newsletter covering politics and busines in Indiana.
Moreau said the Indiana Citizen is continuing to invite Hoosiers to join the civic discussion. However, the website had to refocus its efforts since there will be no state or federal elections in 2021. Now filled with articles about issues such as campaign finance and redistricting, Moreau expects the site will be accused of “advocacy journalism.”
“Well, there will be times when we will be guilty as charged, because we’re going to be advocates for civic engagement, we’re going to be advocates for democracy,” he said. “That’s our only agenda is to do something about the woeful civic health of the state of Indiana.”
The Indiana Citizen: The Crossroads of Civic Engagement was launched after the release of the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index, which showed the Hoosier state to be among the lowest in voter participation in the country. Created by Moreau and his wife Ann and funded by private donors, The Indiana Citizen wants to serve as a resource for Hoosier voters to learn about candidates for office and the issues.
In 2020, the site initiated the One More Voice campaign, which focused on getting more younger Indiana residents to register to vote.
Moreau views this third iteration of the Citizen’s website as a “natural progression.” Continuing the One More Voice campaign in a year with no elections, he said, “would be a waste of a lot of energy.”
Even so, the state will have a vacancy in an elected position this year, buts Hoosier will not have a voice in the selection of who will hold that office. Secretary of State Connie Lawson, Indiana’s top election official, announced she is stepping down in the middle of her term. This gives Gov. Eric Holcomb the opportunity to appoint her replacement.
Moreau said he hopes that once Lawson leaves public office, she will be more vocal in favor of “some very modest changes to the Indiana election laws” that would bring more voters to the polls. Although Indiana voter turnout in November 2020 surged 9% over November 2016, Moreau noted the uptick was well below the Citizen’s goal of a 20% increase and trailed the record numbers tallied in most other states.
“I hope the next secretary of state, frankly, goes to work every day asking the question, ‘What can we do to encourage greater registration, greater participation, greater education, and greater turnout,’” Moreau said. “… (W)e should well be asking anybody in public life in Indiana, as you analyze the Indiana election laws … if you’re going to make a change, any change, does it stand the chance of increasing turnout? If the answer to that is yes, as in the case of no-excuse absentee voting, then your vote should be yes.”
The Indiana Citizen’s foray into journalism is coming as more Americans say they do not trust the news media and a growing number believe conspiracy theories. Moreau said the Citizen is trying to “throw a ladder down the rabbit hole” but he conceded the website’s success at countering the lies is dependent on whether Hoosiers “learn to first find us and then trust us.”
Ben Hizer, the Citizen’s director of marketing, sees transparency as a key to gaining the trust of readers. The website is upfront about who its donors are and from where the information is coming, he said.
“We believe, at the end of the day, if people are empowered with real substance and being presented issues that really matter to them and affect their communities, that it will change that dialogue,” Hizer said.