Turnout and Citizenship

We had an interesting exchange in my Media and Policy class this past Thursday night. I team-teach that class with John Mutz, who–among his numerous other distinctions–served as Indiana’s Lt. Governor. Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm and Common Cause policy director Julia Vaughn were guest speakers. So the discussion (about the impact of money in politics) was informed–and informative.

Julia noted that Indiana ranked next to last among the states in voter turnout, according to the recent Civic Health Index, and John challenged her statement that we should be embarrassed by that low level of participation, saying it didn’t bother him.

Should it bother us? This is one of those questions where the correct response is “it depends.”

If the folks who are blowing off the political process are low-information, low-interest voters, then I agree with John that it isn’t a problem. Why should the votes of the uninformed dilute the votes of those of us who take the process seriously? If you don’t know who you support and why, then you should stay home and let more thoughtful people participate.

On the other hand, if  low turnout is due to one or more of the following reasons, we have a different problem and we need to do something about it.

We should be embarrassed if

We’ve made voting too difficult. If we’ve restricted the number of polling places, and/or limited the hours those polls are open so that voting is inconvenient for people with jobs and family obligations and actual lives, shame on us. Ditto if we’re requiring all sorts of documentation that older, poorer folks are unlikely to have.

We’ve made politics too nasty. If all voters hear are 30-second attacks on the integrity, brains and general humanity of those running for office, research suggests those voters tend to turn it all off and stay home on election day. (Some candidates will actually engage in nasty campaigning in order to evoke the “pox on both your houses” response and thus suppress turnout, if they think a larger turnout would benefit their opponent.)

We’ve made the ballot too daunting and complicated. Remind me again why we are voting for coroner, treasurer, recorder and dog-catcher? Who beside the candidates really cares who serves on township advisory boards?

We’ve failed to “connect the dots” between government policies and the reality of our daily lives, allowing voters to believe that candidates are all fungible. (Hurricane Sandy is just one example of why policies matter: if disaster relief had been turned back to state and local governments, does anyone really believe the result would have been the same for those who desperately needed help? Instead of throwing mud at each other, candidates need to make the case that their preferred policies matter, and how.)

We’ve constructed a system in which many votes really don’t matter. This is the most depressing reason of all, because it’s true. Yes, my vote for state and local offices still matters, more or less, but increasingly–thanks to gerrymandering and winner-take-all allocation of Electoral College votes–my votes for President and many other offices really don’t. (In this year’s Presidential election, those Hoosiers who vote for Obama might just as well flush those votes down the nearest toilet; Romney will win the state and take all of Indiana’s electoral college votes–even if the win is only by a point or two. A couple of states allocate their electoral votes to reflect the breakdown of the state’s popular vote–the constitution permits that–but Indiana and most others don’t.)

So–should we be embarrassed by our low turnout? Yes. If we institute changes that make voting more convenient, the ballot less daunting, the process less negative and/or fruitless and turnout is still low, then we can shrug it off and accuse the nonvoters among us of of poor citizenship. But not before.


  1. There are several things we need to do to improve voter turnout. One of them is to remove the need to register. As natural born citizens of this country, why do we need to register to vote when we turn 18 or move? My husband is a naturalized citizen and will vote in his first election this year. He registered at the DMV when he updated his license but weeks later discovered that he was NOT registered at all. It should be automatic but it’s not. Luckily he caught it in time.
    Secondly, they need to change this ‘voting on Tuesday’ law. Why not make it a national holiday? Also, why not have voting allowed at every precinct weeks before ‘election day’ instead of just downtown at the county city building? You have to get downtown and pay to park to vote early so that’s voter suppression too.
    I agree with your other suggestions. I don’t think judges should be elected. And last but most important, we need Citizens United overturned in Congress. The Supreme Court blew that one. We must take the money out of politics and while we’re at it, how about limit campaigning to 2 months and not 2 yrs. My 2 cents.

  2. Unfortunately, Congress cannot overturn Citizens United. That will require a constitutional amendment. And we can’t limit campaigning without running afoul of the First Amendment. But as you point out, there’s plenty we CAN do.

  3. Very well said. I wonder, too, if low turnout doesn’t also reflect the thought on the part of some that their choice is simply to choose between the lesser of two evils, thrust upon them by the results of primaries which themselves are typically even lower-turnout exercises.

  4. “Who beside the candidates really cares who serves on township advisory boards?”

    Some of the smaller offices impact us more directly than the larger races, so I wish we did care. Or we had some guidance about what to care about and how to understand the impact of those offices on us. I’d take a voter guide that just explained what some of these offices *do* so I’d know whether researching the candidates was important to me or not. IPS school board candidates are an area where I feel like I should be paying more attention, but that’s hard.

  5. I have a friend who firmly believes her vote will not count so she doesn’t bother. While you pointed out the Indiana electorial college may negate my vote for President Obama; they cannot negate by vote against Pence and Mourdock. In this election, congressional candidates are as important as the presidential election. If we maintain the GOP off balance as it is, they will continue to stop President Obama in his tracks and continue voting to repeal ACA and veto any other bills submitted. Whether the GOP anti-Obama actions are racial or political, they have so far worked in their favor. Votes do count in different ways, for different reasons and on different levels. VOTE!

  6. re impact of money on politics
    I heard an interesting point on the Up With Chris Hayes program this morning – a guest pointed out that the “media” may have a vested interest in (not investigating) the tons of money pouring into their coffers for ads. Citizens United has resulted in a stimulus package for media, an impact not talked about…
    Aside – when I was a voter in California, the League of Women Voters mailed out a voter guide pamphlet that was helpful in understanding issues. I am aware that an Indiana chapter exists, but in my two decades here, they have been invisible.

  7. I would like to offer another glaring reason for our low turnout in Indiana. As a Precinct Committeeperson, I have walked my own precinct 5-6 times in the past 5 years. I have meticulously given written feedback as to who has moved, who has died, etc. The forms ask for it, I provide it to the officials. However, those who have moved and died are not taken off the lists. I have talked to many in the higher offices and asked them why voters are not removed and everyone blames someone else. County blames State. State blames the other party. Whoever is to blame, it is a huge problem. SO…the percentage of voters who vote is inherently skewed with so many ‘absent’ voters still on the list.

  8. Yes, Congress can’t ‘overturn’ Citizen’s United but Senator Bernie Sanders (I) VT has introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen’s United. Thanks for the clarification.

  9. On the topic of lower ballot offices, in 2010, Greater Indianapolis for Change offered a free, non-partisan presentation “Why Should I Care About the 2010 Elections & Does My Voter Really Matter””. In this pilot program we explained the significance of each office and gave examples of extremely close races where a mere handful of voters made the difference.

    I expect that we will repeat this program in 2014 (mostly the same offices – little change to the PowerPoint). I hope we can do a better job of getting the word out and reach more voters next time.

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