News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 3, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Low, and OK with it

Indiana keeps a voter registration deadline that passes too early, before most people start focusing on an election

TERRE HAUTE — The little sticker in the upper-left corner of a vehicle’s windshield reminds us — three months in advance — when to get an oil change.

Is yours ever overdue?

Have you written your will? Planned your finances for retirement? Poured septic system treatment down your toilet this month?

Maybe you’re the well-organized, got-it-all-together, my-daily-planner-is-full type who’s completed those important duties ahead of schedule. If so, you truly deserve admiration from those of us who struggle to keep track of birthdays and car keys.

Still, for those who do possess that virtue of timely responsibility, did you also display that quality as an 18- or 19-year-old? Or in your 20s, perhaps when your kids were little? Was your scheduling as prompt in the weeks or months after you moved into another home or city?

Indiana’s voting law assumes Hoosiers attain punctuality on their 18th birthday and maintain it, regardless of life’s curveballs. Otherwise, it’s hard to figure why the state clings to a law enacted in 1925, which was a revision of similar legislation from 1913. That law requires Hoosiers to register with the state of Indiana at least 29 days before Election Day to cast a vote.

A month. This year, the last day to register for Tuesday’s primary election was April 7.

Hoosiers can buy a gun without a waiting period, but they can’t walk into a polling center on Election Day, show their state-issued photo ID, fill out a voter registration form and vote. When it comes to casting a ballot, the state needs 29 days to make sure something bad doesn’t happen when someone fills in those oblong bubbles with an ink pen or clicks a candidate’s name on a computer screen.

Why?

“That is a really good question,” said Trent Deckard, Democratic co-director of the Indiana Election Division, the state agency that oversees elections and campaigning.

Deckard speculated that the law was enacted to allow counties time to create voter lists for poll books. Yet, in this modern age of instant technology, 29 days seems incredibly long.

The deadline is outdated and helps make Indiana’s voter turnouts among the nation’s lowest. Though the state has improved its poor voter accessibility record, it maintains some restrictive laws, such as the photo-ID requirement and an earliest-in-the-nation 6 p.m. poll closing time on Election Day. But the one-month-before-Election-Day voter registration deadline likely affects turnout more negatively, said Michael McDonald, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. McDonald leads that Virginia college’s United States Election Project.

The potential voters most often lost because of such deadlines are people who’ve never registered and people who’ve recently moved. In the latter group, their attention gets focused on getting unpacked and acclimated to a new neighborhood, school and daily routine, instead of an upcoming election. Before the move-ins start paying attention to who’s running for sheriff and realize they need to update their registration, the deadline has passed.

“They’re not tuning in to the election 30 days prior,” McDonald said.

In both cases, the never-registered and the relocated tend to be younger or low-income folks, McDonald added. Common political thinking paints those two demographic groups as Democratic leaning. That explains why the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly sticks by its one-month-ahead registration deadline. It involves party turf and the “perception that anything that expands voter participation helps Democrats, and anything that constricts it helps Republicans,” McDonald said.

Thus, state legislatures dominated by Republicans resist adopting many laws — such as Election-Day (or same-day) registration — that would accommodate more young or low-income voters. But those old-school political presumptions may flawed, McDonald said.

“It may not have as much of a partisan effect that people think it does,” he said. “In fact, it may be a wash.”

Eleven states — including our Midwestern neighbors Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin — allow same-day registration. Three joined the list in the past two years. A 12th, Hawaii, just passed Election-Day registration. Hawaii had a low turnout among its “voting-eligible population” for the last midterm election in November 2010, with 39.8 percent of its eligible adult citizens.

By contrast, states that adopted same-day registration in the 1970s were among the nation’s leaders in 2010 turnout — Minnesota at 55.4 percent, Maine 55.2 and Wisconsin 52.

How did Indiana’s turnout rank? Eighth-worst. Just 37.1 percent of voting-eligible Hoosiers cast votes four years ago, according to the United States Election Project.

“Some of these states at the bottom, like Hawaii, are concerned about their Election Day turnouts and are doing something about it,” McDonald said. Same-day registration boosts turnout by 5 to 7 percent, he explained.

Tim Lanane tried that in Indiana in 2009. The Democratic state senator from Anderson sponsored a same-day voter registration bill that year in the General Assembly, where Republicans held House and Senate majorities. His bill went nowhere.

“There seems to be some folks who aren’t interested in making it easier to vote,” Lanane said Thursday by telephone. “And they do all this in the name of [preventing] voter fraud, which has never been proven to be a problem.”

Ironically, Republicans successfully pushed for a photo-ID voting law that would seem to make Election-Day registration workable in Indiana.

Instead, about 18,500 people in Vigo County — where the total adult population is 85,792 — will likely participate in Tuesday’s midterm (non-presidential) primary election, similar to May 2010. According to the county, 76,491 are registered. Statewide, Vigo’s turnouts fall in the middle, compared to other counties. Plus, primaries — where party nominees are selected — traditionally attract fewer voters than fall general elections, and the turnouts are even lower for midterms in any state. Comparatively, Indiana’s turnout likely will be even lighter than others.

And, apparently, state leaders are OK with that.

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

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