An admirable plan has been dropped that would have helped introduce Vigo County high school students to the voting process by busing interested teens to the polls for the May 8 primary.
Opponents of the idea may consider the decision by school district officials a victory, but efforts should continue to engage more young people in the cornerstone aspect of the American democracy — casting a ballot.
The Vigo County School Board planned to discuss in its upcoming Monday meeting a proposal to use corporation buses to transport voting-eligible high schoolers to nearby vote centers on Election Day. A Terre Haute businessman offered to cover the cost of the bus deployment, likely less than $200. School Board president Jackie Lower suggested the Election Day bus plan after she and board member Alpa Patel were approached by community members about the concept.
Objections arose from at least two candidates for the Indiana House District 43 seat. On Friday, Lower said the board will not vote on the plan.
One complaint was that such a gesture on behalf of 18-year-olds would give unfair preference over needier people. The elderly, poor and disabled residents living in public housing complexes in Terre Haute — such as Garfield Towers, Warren Village and Liberty Village — have no nearby vote center and are more deserving of extra accommodations for transportation to the polls, said opponents of the bus-students-to-the-polls plan.
The school district's decision renders that debate moot. Lower said VCSC officials did not want to set a precedent by permitting an outside individual or business to fund a non-school sponsored student outing.
Politics fueled the opposition, too. One District 43 candidate is a high school teacher who, theoretically, could receive an inordinate amount of votes from students on those bus rides to the polls, and two of her opponents complained.
It is disappointing to see the bus proposal die before a board vote and open discussion. It was worthy of both. It would have been a real-world lesson for the students in civics — a classroom subject that reaps lifetime rewards and deserves higher priority.
Now that it has been pulled, community leaders should find other ways to guide the youngest potential voters to cast their first votes. Likewise, local officials should redouble efforts to help isolated elderly, poor and disabled residents access the voting process. Vigo County and Terre Haute have had historically low turnouts in recent elections. The 2015 city election stands out. Only 8,255 people voted, the smallest number going back to the 1890s.
Weak civic engagement and economic decline go hand in hand, as many studies show. Communities tend to thrive if residents routinely ask questions, learn what officeholders can address problems or implement projects, and show up at local meetings and the polls. If not, those cities and counties struggle. Efforts to engage groups of people who feel unnoticed by local policies pay off.
Cynics scoff at outreach to today's young people, who they see as apathetic, entitled and too lazy to vote. The problem does not just exist at the polls, though. Americans' participation in public meetings had plummeted by 35 percent in a quarter-century, according to a Harvard University researcher cited by a PBS "By the People" report.
Fortunately, Terre Haute has active advocates for public participation. The League of Women Voters of Vigo County intends to consider other options for transporting to the polls voters unfamiliar with the process or unable to drive, young and old. We applaud the League's determination. The city should consider stepping up as well, perhaps by offering free city bus rides to vote centers on Election Day and during early voting. Numerous U.S. cities provide such service.
Vigo County and Terre Haute can increase citizen involvement. The community would be wise to support efforts to do just that.