News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

October 7, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Upcoming PBS documentary focuses on nation’s voting irregularities, through Hoosier eyes

TERRE HAUTE — As America prepares to choose its governmental leaders, voters are being relentlessly asked how much they trust elected officials.

An equally important question would be, how much do elected officials trust Americans as voters?

A glance at the uneven patchwork of election laws across the nation makes you wonder whether trust in the people is greater in some places than others.

Maine allows incarcerated felons to vote. Felony inmates in Indiana regain their voting rights after being released from prison. Florida requires freed felons to petition the state to become eligible again.

Indiana ceases its voter registration 29 days before the election. (Tuesday is the deadline.) Connecticut ends registration the day before the election. Minnesota and Iowa let voters register on Election Day. North Dakota doesn’t even require voters to register.

Polls close at 6 p.m. in Indiana and Kentucky. Iowans and New Yorkers have until 9 p.m. to get to a voting booth.

Then there are the voter-ID laws. Those policies require people to present photo identification before being allowed to vote, and were enacted by state legislators in Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee and, yes, Indiana. Lawmakers in other states have seen their attempts to impose photo-ID restrictions on voters blocked or stalled in court. Those rules have been challenged as unnecessary, politically motivated obstacles to voting for the poor, elderly and disabled who, unlike other Americans, don’t already possess a voting-approved, state-issued driver’s license. Supporters of voter-ID assert that the regulations prevent voter fraud, but struggle to provide significant evidence that impersonation at the polls exists.

Does that sound as if the lawmakers fully trust the concept of “every American citizen has the right to vote”?

Which brings us to the U.S. Constitution. The landmark document contains several amendments that protect the voting rights of various segments of the population from discrimination. Yet, the Founding Fathers did not explicitly outline voter qualifications, and left that determination up to the states. Thus, there are 13,000 different election jurisdictions — all with varying policies and practices — in the U.S.

The situation led a team of filmmakers to create a nonpartisan, but irreverent, 90-minute documentary, “Electoral Dysfunction,” to be broadcast on PBS this month. The camera crew and host Mo Rocca (correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning” and formerly “The Daily Show”) came to Indiana, “which has some of the strictest voting laws in the country.” The state served as a microcosm of America’s electoral disparities.

“Indiana certainly emerged as a fascinating laboratory, or case study, to look at a myriad of voting issues,” Bennett Singer, a writer, director and producer of the documentary, said by telephone last week from New York.

“Electoral Dysfunction” doesn’t take sides politically. It does illuminate Indiana’s share of quirks and illogical policies that are present in other states, being implemented by principled, well-meaning, hospitable Hoosiers. “The warmth of the people was astonishing,” Singer said.

The film zeroes in on folks in two southern Indiana counties, Jennings and Ripley — through the eyes of two politically passionate locals — a Democrat, and a Republican. The outcome is enlightening, whichever side of the fence a viewer occupies.

“Whether you’re conservative, liberal or in the middle, you’ll learn something,” said Dee Dee Benkie, the Republican featured in “Electoral Dysfunction.” Speaking by cellphone Friday, Benkie — active in the national GOP and a familiar face on Fox News — emphasized that she whole-heartedly supports the voter-ID law, and thinks all states should follow Indiana’s lead. Benkie thinks a photo ID should also be required to vote absentee, which is currently not the case here and seemingly contradicts the premise of the in-person voter-ID standard.

The peculiarities don’t end there.

With Rocca guiding humorous, but informative interviews, other shortcomings of the voter-ID law unfold.

Proponents explain that people who don’t have the necessary state-issued photo-ID can get one, free of charge, at Bureau of Motor Vehicles branches. To get that free ID, a would-be voter will need a birth certificate, Erin Kelley — an officer for the League of Women Voters of Indianapolis — points out in the film. In Marion County, Kelley explains, that person would need to go to the Health Department and pay $12 for the birth certificate. That certificate also must be stamped by a notary public, who must indicate on the form that the applicant presented either a valid Indiana driver’s license, a valid state-issued ID, a military ID, or a passport. Any of those forms of identification would make the pursuit of the birth certificate unnecessary.

“So it’s kind of a ‘Catch-22?’” Rocca asks Kelley.

“Yes,” she answers.

Last week, by telephone from Indianapolis, Kelley challenged the voter-ID’s burden on women.

If the name on that birth certificate is different from the legal name of the voter seeking the photo-ID, they’ll also need to bring along legal proof of a name change. A woman may need their marriage license, or a divorce decree. Men who have not changed their names would not. The law is “very skewed toward disenfranchising women,” Kelley said.

Such documentation is needed, said Dennis Rosebrough, BMV deputy commissioner, because “we have to prove how you went from ‘Smith’ to ‘Jones.’” Rosebrough, who is not in the film and spoke by telephone last week, said he has worked at the voting polls, separate from his BMV role, for 35 years. Since the 2005 passage of Indiana’s voter-ID law, Rosebrough said he has never seen a person at the polls unable to produce an ID card.

“This is just my personal observation, but I just don’t believe there is this mass of humanity who really wants to vote who can’t get an ID,” Rosebrough said.

The film lets viewers draw their own conclusions about not only Indiana’s voting laws, but also — as Rocca calls it — the “crazy quilt” of other laws around America, including the popular vote-trumping Electoral College. “Electoral Dysfunction” was screened at both the Republican and Democratic parties’ national conventions. It was well received at both, despite the prevailing perception that GOP-dominated state legislatures pushed voter-ID to suppress participation among typically Democratic groups, such as minorities, and the poor, elderly and disabled.

At the Republican convention in Tampa, “We had a very enthusiastic audience,” Singer said, “and a great discussion afterward. It was an example of people agreeing to disagree.”

The statistical realities stand on their own, though.

Fifty-million eligible voters in America are not registered. Indiana ranks 48th out of the 50 states in voter participation, according to the Indiana Civil Health Index, overseen by retired congressman Lee Hamilton and retired state Chief Justice Randall Shepard. In the 2010 election, just 39.4 percent of registered Hoosiers voted, well below the national average of 45.5 percent. Indiana ranks 43rd nationally in voter registration, at 61.2 percent.

The question is, are elected officials OK with that?

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

Seeing It

• The national PBS documentary “Electoral Dysfunction,” based on Indiana, will be broadcast on WTIU (Bloomington) at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, and at 10 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1. Screenings of the film are also anticipated at selected college campuses around Indiana this month; check updates on that schedule online at www.electoraldysfunction.org.

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