News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 7, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Like other Indiana counties, Vigo struggles with voter apathy

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo Countians who trekked to the new voting centers, who endured long lines at a couple of popular sites, and who learned to use the new touch-screen machines displayed solid civic spirit in Tuesday’s primary election.

The changes to the system showed promise, despite some first-time complications, particularly the frustrating waits at two centers. With adjustments, the November general election could run smoother.

Tuesday’s long lines were a paradox.

Most adults in Vigo County didn’t vote. Just 16.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Midterm primaries — those without a presidential race — traditionally draw fewer people to the polls. This year’s primary cleared that low bar like a double-jointed limbo player. The local turnout was lower than any in, at least, the past 28 years, according to county statistics cited in Tribune-Star archives. A total of 12,721 people voted in this primary. By comparison, the Scheid Diesel Extravaganza brings in an estimated crowd of 15,000 (albeit many out-of-towners) every August.

Vigo County is far from alone, though.

In fact, this community generated a greater percentage of voters than many other Indiana counties.

Turnouts around the state were breathtakingly poor: Howard County (home to Kokomo), 9.4 percent; Johnson County (Franklin), 9.1; Dubois County (Jasper), 6.5; and St. Joseph County (South Bend), 6.48.

6.48 percent.

Several others had worse turnouts than Vigo, including LaPorte, Hamilton, Tippecanoe and Grant counties. Some counties that shifted to voting centers — where people can vote at any site, instead of being limited to their home precinct poll — had higher turnouts than Vigo and some were lower, said David Crockett, Vigo County Clerk.

“We didn’t have a super turnout, but we had a better turnout than some,” Crockett said.

The reasons are myriad. In Indiana primaries, voters take either a Republican or Democratic ballot and choose the party’s nominees for various offices for the fall general election. This year, several offices were uncontested, including more than two dozen on each party’s ticket in Vigo County. In some cases, no candidates have filed at all, setting up the lackluster possibility of an uncontested fall race.

Randy Gentry, chairman of the Vigo County Republican Party, expects some of the GOP vacancies to be filled in the coming weeks through the caucus process. “There’s a lot of interest [from prospective candidates],” Gentry said Wednesday afternoon, “and we’ll do our best to fill the spots and give everybody a choice.”

The Democratic Party had no candidates on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary in the typically high-profile Vigo County Prosecutor position. Party chairman Joe Etling said Wednesday that some attorneys inquired about running earlier this year “but elected not to pursue the office.” Etling said the party may field a candidate by fall, adding, “We’ll continue to do all we can to keep our ticket full.”

Apathy and empty ballots indeed play a role, but Indiana can do more to foster an atmosphere of civic engagement at election time. The addition of voting centers, online registration and early voting opportunities have improved the state’s weak record of voter accessibility. Its voter registration rate ranks 42nd (near the bottom) in the country, and its turnouts rank 40th, according to last month’s Election Performance Index issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Those statistics need to be changed. More Hoosiers from every background, not just the politically astute, should be encouraged to join in the process.

One avenue would be to adopt election-day registration, like Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, among others. Currently, Indiana closes its voter registration 29 days before an election — well before most people start paying attention to the races. The law dates back to 1913 and 1925 and is unnecessary in this technological age. This year’s deadline was April 7. Already under the present system, someone could register that day and within a few days cast a ballot through early voting, which began April 8 this year. The 29-days-before-the-election deadline is antiquated and an unneeded barrier. Plus, Indiana’s law requiring a photo ID to vote makes election-day registration doable.

The Indiana Legislature should consider extending the poll-closing time on election day to 7 p.m. from the present 6 p.m., and consider moving elections to Saturdays instead of Tuesdays.

Low voter participation is a problem that needs to be addressed in multiple ways. Whether the most significant cause is disinterest, a lack of candidates, disgust with political polarization or restrictive voting laws, Tuesday’s turnouts around Indiana cast a wonderful state in a poor light.

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

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