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Why Is Indiana’s Voter Turnout Below The National Average?

Vote buttons

Photo: Sean Locke Photography

VOTE buttons (photo credit Sean Locke Photography)

Indiana’s voter turnout has been below the national average going back a decade. And while early signs point to a big uptick this May, it’s not likely to last.

The weeks before an election are a busy time for county clerks – training poll workers, processing absentee and early voting ballots – helping people vote. In Henry County, Clerk Debbie Walker says this year’s biggest complaint is the voter ID law, which Indiana’s had for a decade.

Is The State’s Voter ID Law To Blame For Low Turnout?

“We’ve had so many new registrations this year – I think that that’s the issue,” Walker says. “They’ve never voted before so they didn’t know that, because we’ve never had an issue with that in the past.”

The voter ID law requires people to show identification before they can vote: a passport, a drivers license or a state ID. And the state IDs are free. But League of Women Voters Indiana president Erin Kelley says a “free” state ID isn’t free for everyone.

“It’s not free for people who have to take time off of work not only to go and vote but to go and get that ID,” Kelley says. “It’s not free for individuals who don’t have all of the documentation they need to get the ID and then have to request a birth certificate and pay for that.”

The voter ID law was passed a decade ago: in that same time period the state turnout numbers remained below the national average.

It’s not free for people who have to take time off of work not only to go and vote but to go and get that ID.

—Erin Kelley, League of Women Voters Indiana President

“It might have more of a partisan twist than an overall turnout impact,” says Bill Blomquist, IUPUI political scientist.

He says the populations most affected by voter ID laws – the poor, minorities – tend to vote Democrat. But overall voter turnout wasn’t dramatically higher before the law was passed, and there’s not much research to suggest that it had a significant impact.

One study looked at provisional ballots cast in Indiana’s 2012 election. Provisional ballots can be cast without an ID; the voter can present it later. In 2012, only about 650 – out of more than two and a half million ballots – could not be counted because of ID issues.

Yet in 2014, Indiana had the lowest turnout rate in the country, a historic low for the state. In the last presidential election, when turnout usually goes up, the rate was still 16 percent lower than it was two decades ago.

Vote here sign


"Vote Here" Sign

If Not Voter ID Laws, Why Is Turnout So Low?

“I think that people just don’t care anymore,” says Wendy Hudson, Elkhart County clerk.

IUPUI’s Blomquist agrees. He says American culture has created, essentially, a mantra that creates that apathy.

“Apathy is cheap, hip and easy,” Blomquist says. “Government can’t do anything right, they don’t care what you think anyway, and it doesn’t matter – those messages have been drummed into the ears and eyes of the American people for at least 40 years.”

Political scientist Joseph Losco says the root cause goes even deeper. Losco heads the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State. He says the heart of turnout decline is a lack of competitive elections.

“Voters will vote if you give them a choice, if you give them candidates who present them with genuine alternatives,” Losco says.

I think that people just don’t care anymore.

—Wendy Hudson, Elkhart County Clerk

In 2014, Indiana’s worst turnout year on record, 43 percent of state House and Senate races were uncontested in the general election. The League of Women Voters says redistricting reform will help solve the problem, putting an independent commission in charge of drawing district boundaries.

But Losco says it can only help a little because people are sorting themselves politically into different regions – Democrats in urban areas, Republicans in suburban and rural locales

“Now it’s hard to create a district that is shaped in such a way as to incorporate some of urban areas and large parts of rural areas,” Losco says.

Losco does predict an uptick in turnout in this year’s primary, fueled by competitive presidential elections in both parties. But he says that will likely be a blip, and predicts few reasons to be optimistic for overall improvement anytime soon.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

  • rick

    I believe that timing plays a fairly significant role in voter turnout. This is the first presidential election in recent memory that isn’t pre-determined before Indiana’s primaries. Unless there are local races that that are heavily contested, voter apathy easily sets in.

  • lastcamp2

    There is a fine distinction between being apathetic and being demoralized. I would argue that feeling that our political representatives “don’t care what you think” and that “voting doesn’t matter, or doesn’t make a difference” is more due to being demoralized than being apathetic. Apathy is not caring. Demoralization is the frustration and loss of confidence that comes from the belief, or knowledge, that government is unresponsive to the public.

    I think people do care about government, either negatively or positively. I think they fail to participate because they think or realize that their attempts to participate don’t change anything.

    Emma Goldman once famously said, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” I am sure Goldman cared, but felt the frustration and lack of confidence that comes from being demoralized, a sense that government is working against the people instead of for them. And of course Goldman also thought that change is more likely to come from outside government through direct action than through the efforts of the politicians we elect to represent us, but then fail to do so.

    Goldman’s analysis bears heavily on the decline of voting and other forms of civic engagement.

  • FVS

    Bull crap story. I bet they all had the “necessary” paperwork to apply for their EBT cards.

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