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

VOTE buttons (photo credit Sean Locke Photography)

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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.

[pullquote source=”Erin Kelley, League of Women Voters Indiana President”]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.[/pullquote]

“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.

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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.

[pullquote source =”Wendy Hudson, Elkhart County Clerk”]I think that people just don’t care anymore.[/pullquote]

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.

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