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The Indiana way of voting

A tight Presidential race could get Indiana citizens out to the polls again, and maybe even boost interest in our local officials

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-10-11


As of this writing, a new poll has just put President Bush and Senator Kerry neck-and-neck among voters.

That’s today, of course. Last week, the President was enjoying a lead of several points. Still, any political analyst, whether they’re on CNN or sitting next to you at the counter during lunch, could tell you that a seven or eight point lead is hardly a far enough margin to place that order for the most expensive victory champagne. Yes, I know President Bush doesn’t drink and that champagne is French. The point is, despite the fluctuation in the polls, this is going to be a close race, one sure to galvanize voters and send them streaming to the polls in greater numbers than any other election in recent history. Right?

Well, maybe not in Indiana. It turns out that Hoosier voting habits are as bad as our eating habits. Typically, our turn out at the polls is pretty dismal, even for general elections.

“In 2000, turnout was 67.5% nationwide, whereas in Indiana, it was around 54%,” says Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “Some states obviously get much more exciting voter turnout than Indiana.”

Downs is correct. There are states with a much more exciting voter turnout than Indiana’s. In fact, 49 states had a more exciting voter turnout than Indiana in the 2000 presidential election, according to statistics from the Federal Election Commission. Oklahoma just barely beats us, with 55.3% of registered voters actually showing up at the polls.

One reason for our low turnout percentage-wise could be that state voter registration records aren’t purged as often as they used to be. Once upon a time, if you didn’t vote in a certain number of consecutive general elections, your name was removed. Now, with “Motor Voter” registration, more people are registering, and it takes longer to wipe the list. Conceivably, Indiana could have a number of registered voters on the list who have since moved or died, skewing the percentage of registered voters who show up at the voting booths.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not being in, say, 42nd place rather than 50th is anything to get excited about, voter turnout in Indiana is declining, with a low interest in national and local elections.

There may be something more going on here than typical apathy. It’s no secret that Indiana doesn’t get much attention from presidential candidates of either party. Mrs. Bush showed up in Indianapolis a few months ago to endorse Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels, but that’s been about it for this election year. The Republicans think we’re a sure thing, and the Democrats think we’re a lost cause. Short of a natural disaster providing a good photo-op, presidential candidates don’t have much to gain from coming here. “We have only 11 electoral votes, so we’re not one of the states that is heavily contended for,” says Geralyn Miller, Assistant Professor at IPFW’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Right now, you see the presidential candidates over in Ohio and Pennsylvania and up in Wisconsin where they know they’re going to get a big turnout. They know that Indiana is pre-disposed toward being a Republican state, and with only a limited number of electoral votes, they’re not going to spend their resources over here campaigning.”

Miller suggests that this neglect has sort of a trickle-down effect among potential voters. When I use the phrase “voters don’t bother showing up,” Miller points out that it’s not that simple. “Because those candidates aren’t here, there isn’t that interest generated to give (the election) a momentum,” she explains. “It’s not that they (voters) don’t bother. They’re not inspired. There’s no catalyst pushing them out.”

On top of a mediocre turnout for the presidential elections, there’s also something called “voter fall-off” to take into account. Voter fall-off is where people will go into the voting booth and not vote for certain offices. “You find fall-off all the time in elections, but with the decline in strong party identification, there is an increase in fall-off,” says Andy Downs. “It used to be people would say ‘I’m a Democrat’ or ‘I’m a Republican’ and they’d push that button or pull that lever and that was good enough. Today, what they do is start pulling down the levers of people they know, and they don’t vote for the ones they don’t know.”

It presents a problem for people trying to study election turnout and the way people vote. “Fall-off has been studied by some scholars, and the evidence suggest that the lower you go on the ballot, the more the fall-off is, so that people will vote for presidential races before they vote for county clerk,” says Miller. “But does one necessarily negate the other? Does that mean that if they tend to fall off towards the bottom of the ballot, that they’re never going to skip the presidential candidate? There is unfortunately very limited research on that.”

As Miller says, there’s no research to determine exactly what candidates tend to get passed over by voters in the booth, and there’s no research that breaks down voter fall-off on a state-by-state basis. But if Indiana follows the trends Miller cites above, namely that enthusiasm wanes the further voters go down the ballot, it might explain an interest in local elections that could be described as tepid at best. Lack of excitement for national elections trickles down into lack of excitement for local elections.

And an indifference to local elections is strange, considering that the kind of things that affect our lives on a day-to-day basis — tax bases, emergency services, utilities — are all determined by council people and commissioners. It’s the local government that makes sure the water that goes into your house is acceptable and makes sure the fire department gets there in time. “People believe that president or governor is the office that affects us the most, because these are the people helping to establish taxation rates and spending policies and developing programs,” says Andy Downs. “Those are big-ticket items. Those are the big dollars and the big elected offices. But it’s local government that matters the most, because when you’re driving down the road and you hit a pothole, it’s not the federal government that’s going to fix that, it’s your local government. Even though the dollars may come through the state to the local government, it’s the local government that actually fixes the pothole. Local government is the stuff we physically experience on a daily basis, unlike, for example, social security, which many people experience on a daily basis, but not the same number of people who walk on a sidewalk or go to a park on any given day.”

The lack of interest, enthusiasm, or even much knowledge of elections at the local level is a constant source of frustration to most people running for election in Allen County this year. Typically, it’s the local media’s responsibility to “introduce” local candidates and officials to the electorate, but according to several local political figures we talked to, media coverage has been pretty slack. “There are a number of candidates who have held press conferences, and the media doesn’t even show up for them,” says Andy Downs. “Don’t get me wrong, some of these press conferences have been fluff-oriented press conferences, but many of them were quite substantive. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

“This is pure opinion, but I think there’s so much coverage of the national political situation that by the time you get down to the local elected officials, it just doesn’t get the attention, even at the gubernatorial level,” says Fred Eckart, Democratic Candidate for Allen County commissioner. “I think it’s important for the media to be part of the process of educating the electorate. I’m not saying it has to be covered with the intensity of CNN, but I do think that it’s important for the electorate to get to know their candidates.”

Eckart gives another example of how important it is for the local media to become involved in elections. “The costs of campaigning are unbelievably high, and there’s no candidate for local office that can really afford the kind of educational communications that the media provides. The cost of sending a mailer, for example, is unbelievable. With postage, printing, and all that, you’re talking about 50 cents a copy. Multiply that by 100,00 voters or something, There’s no candidate for local elective office who can afford to do that, at least not in any systematic way.”

Of course, sometimes races for city and local office get a lot of coverage and public attention. Dennis Tropp, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Allen County, describes last year’s overall turnout for the mayoral elections as “good,” with no national elections to overshadow it. But then again, last year’s rematch of Linda Buskirk and Graham Richard had a built-in controversy factor; the previous mayoral election with the same two candidates had been decided by a handful of votes. Other, less hotly contested city elections in the past have not generated a lot of voter turnout. It could suggest that media and public interest in any political race is determined by something people claim not to like about politics — the potential for a good fight.

But unfortunately or not, most of the time, local politics in Fort Wayne just aren’t that sexy. Most of the time, it’s about potholes, street signs, clean parks and public services. Eckart supports Mayor Richard’s ideas for a tighter working relationship between city and county governments. As an example, he cites a recent incident where commuters in southwestern Allen County complained of a “serious” pothole in the area. According to Eckart, the Mayor’s pothole program has figured out a method where potholes could be fixed within four hours; this particular pothole, the responsibility of the county, took seven weeks, Eckart says. “As a result, people don’t understand the need to integrate the county government with the city and the towns in Allen County so that we can do a better job.”

Whether or not you support the city/county government issue isn’t the point, says Eckart. “The point is that it wasn’t reported. I don’t expect people to jump up and down about potholes. Potholes are a pretty mundane subject, but it’s something that all of us bump into. Literally.”

But we probably should be jumping up and down about things like potholes. After all, damage to cars from potholes can range from a blown tire to your entire frame getting knocked out of whack, with insurance claims running between $150 and $600 (try throwing that factoid out at your next party. It’s a guaranteed conversation-stopper).

Of course, potholes are just an example, and if they seem to small a subject to worry about, there are several other things, some already mentioned in this article, that we rely on local government to provide for us: emergency services, utilities, water, sidewalks…

Even as I write this, both parties in Allen County are reporting a remarkable surge in voter registration after the first Presidential debate. This election year, with the polls numbers constantly shifting (“dynamic” if you’re a Democrat, “indecisive” is you’re a Republican), experts are predicting a greater turnout than in recent years, no matter what we might have seen historically. Nothing brings out the voters like a good fight, but maybe voters making a commitment to register and hit the booths this election year will inspire an closer interest in the local people and policies that affect our lives practically every hour.

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