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October 25, 2012

No matter the age, voting’s a part of American fabric

TERRE HAUTE —

The electoral karma seemed, well, unfair.

Since my first opportunity a few decades ago, I’ve done my best to vote every time. Whether at the local firehouse or schoolhouse, whether our kids were little and wandering around the polling place, whether the weather was rainy or clear, I filled in those circles on the ballots.

It just feels so American, so free. Nobody should miss such an experience.

In 2008, the urge to vote was stronger than ever for millions of Americans. Along with older folks, even young people — the 18- to 24-year-olds — were engaged in the process, listening to speeches, registering voters and actively participating. The atmosphere was intense yet inspiring. The presidential portion of the campaign took me to Indianapolis to chronicle an appearance by Republican nominee John McCain, to Terre Haute visits by Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at high schools, the Saratoga, and the 4-H Building at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds.

I even sat in another restaurant, waiting for Bill Clinton to drop in during a trip to the Wabash Valley on his wife’s behalf. He never arrived at that anticipated appointment. The former president was forced to miss a meet-and-greet breakfast to instead survey damage from an overnight fire at Hillary’s local campaign headquarters.

After a year of election drama, voting day finally neared. Yet, as luck would have it, a brief flu-like ailment landed me in the hospital — for the first time since a high school football injury — on the Sunday before the historic election. Till then, I could count on one hand the number of sick days I’d taken from work, dating back to the 1980s. Of all the times to be out of action … go figure.

So, instead of writing newspaper pieces about the events, I read the newspaper accounts from a hospital bed, and watched TV coverage of “Decision 2008” wire-to-wire for five days.

But I wasn’t completely on the sidelines. I voted.

The Vigo County Confined Voters Board sent two members — one Republican, one Democrat — to the hospital and allowed me to cast my ballot.

That moment came to mind at the end of Monday’s third and final presidential debate, when moderator Bob Schieffer signed off with a poignant reminder to viewers. Quoting his own mother, Schieffer — one of the best television news people on the planet — urged Americans to “go vote. It makes you feel big and strong.”

He’s right. Four years ago, the privilege to join 131,393,990 fellow Americans participating in the process made me feel stronger than could any IV.

This year, Indiana can feel bigger and stronger than in recent elections. A report last year, overseen by former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton and retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, revealed that the state has room for improvement, in terms of voter involvement. The study, labeled the Indiana Civic Health Index, revealed some positive aspects of Hoosiers.

The state ranked 17th nationally in the percentage of families eating meals together on a regular basis, a practice that, according to the report, boosts community involvement. Indiana rated No. 21 in membership in service clubs, including school and faith-based groups.

But on the opposite end, the Hoosier state ranked 48th in voter turnout. In the 2010 election, just 39.4 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. That figure fell well below the national rate of 45.5 percent. Indiana stood 43rd out of 50 states in the proportion of residents registered to vote, with only 61.2 percent. Part of the problem is Indiana’s voting obstacles — the deadline to register 29 days before Election Day (right about the time people start thinking seriously about the campaign), the early poll-closing time of 6 p.m., and the unnecessary voter photo ID law. Still, two years ago, only 39.4 of those eligible voted.

Opportunities still exist, even if Election Day looks too busy for voting.

Early voting continues in Vigo County from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, through Nov. 3 on the first floor of the Vigo County Courthouse. It resumes on Monday, Nov. 5, from 8 a.m. until noon. You must be registered, and you’ll need a state or federally issued photo ID. So far, 1,830 people have taken advantage of early voting locally, the Vigo County Clerk’s office reported. If you don’t vote early, the polls are open on Election Day — Tuesday, Nov. 6 — from 6 a.m. till 6 p.m.

Feel big and strong. Vote.

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

 

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