News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

January 29, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Referendum could draw voters off sidelines, impact other races

TERRE HAUTE — Most Hoosiers skip a trip to the polls on midterm election day.

Statistics prove it. In fact, we’ve grown less and less inclined to vote in the midterms — as we call elections that are held two years before the next presidential election. Perhaps we’re too politically weary from the previous Oval Office campaigns to stomach deep study of candidates running for seats in Congress, the state legislature or local offices. Maybe the public drama of a race for president is the only attraction strong enough to offset the cynicism or personal busyness that keeps so many Indiana residents from casting ballots.

Whatever the reason, a decreasing percentage of Hoosiers vote in nonpresidential elections. In 1962, 70 percent of registered voters showed up. By 2002, it sank to 39 percent, and the midterm turnout levels haven’t risen much since.

This November could become an exception.

The ballot could include a referendum asking voters to decide whether to place a ban on same-sex marriage into the Indiana Constitution. State lawmakers are currently wrangling over the issue, known as HJR-3. If the Legislature approves the ban, the now-three-year process to amend the constitution enters its final step: the referendum on Nov. 4.

The presence of the high-profile referendum might inspire stay-home-on-midterm-election-day Hoosiers to cast a ballot. HJR-3 may be their main motivation for voting, but while they’re at it, those extra voters also would likely make choices in races for the U.S. House, the Indiana Senate and House, county sheriff and others. The extraordinary mix of voters might inject a dose of unpredictability into otherwise predictable races.

“It has the potential to do that,” said Andrew Downs, director of the nonpartisan Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics on the Indiana-Purdue at Fort Wayne campus.

Who are these voters?

“The demographic that might turn out, that would not otherwise, might be young people,” Downs said. In 2010, just 20.9 percent of eligible young voters, those 18 to 29 years old, went to the polls, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. When they do vote, they lean Democratic. Sixty-percent of young voters supported President Obama twice. In 2012, 79 percent of young people voted against a similar same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota.

Republicans, the party forwarding the legislation to amend the Indiana Constitution, hold super-majority control of both chambers of the Legislature; all Indiana House seats and half in the Senate are on the 2014 ballot. So are all nine of Indiana’s U.S. House seats, of which Republicans occupy seven. Obviously, the Republicans’ Hoosier supporters already routinely vote, hence their dominance. Democrats, who have opposed HJR-3 in the current session of the Indiana General Assembly, expect the increased voter turnout to largely support their position, Downs said.

“Whether it makes a difference in the other races remains to be seen,” he added.

The additional voters stirred by the divisive referendum, if it moves to the ballot, don’t represent one single ideological block, though. For example, Freedom Indiana, a business-backed coalition fighting to stop the amendment on civil-rights grounds and because it paints Indiana as unwelcoming, “is not just a bunch of Democrats,” Downs pointed out.

Along with young voters, and social and economic liberals who may normally sit out midterm elections, libertarians and fiscal conservatives who oppose the same-sex marriage ban may also be lured off the sidelines. If so, they may vote against the ban, but vote for Republicans in Statehouse and congressional races. Because the remapping of Indiana congressional districts favors incumbents, upsets in those races are less probable. In the 8th District, incumbent Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon has a GOP primary opponent but no Democratic challenger yet. On Wednesday, Jessica Martin of the Indiana Democratic Party said, “We will have a candidate for the 8th soon.”

But GOP incumbents in the state House and Senate may be more vulnerable to an expanded electorate.

“If the attention is at the House or Senate level, that’s where you’d expect the difference to be made,” Downs said.

With no choice for president, governor or U.S. Senate on the ballot, the referendum would indeed command public attention this fall, just as it is now.

“If a constitutional ban on gay marriage were proposed to voters in November, we should expect campaigning on the issue, state tracking polls on the question and heavy media coverage,” stated Matthew Bergbower, assistant professor of political science at Indiana State University. “Putting the ban on the ballot sets up a campaign environment for Statehouse and congressional candidates to address this societal issue to a larger degree than their campaigns may wish.”

The political party advantage is not yet definite. Bergbower couldn’t say whether the referendum “will hurt conservatives. Statewide polling shows a few different trends, for and against, at the moment, and some of these opinions could very well be altered once they hear candidates, parties and interest groups on the campaign trail present their side of the issue.”

If so, this midterm election may draw the level of turnout every Indiana election should get.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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