I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with people who couldn’t understand how the Indiana legislature could [fill in the blank with your choice of the biggest travesty]. During the just-concluded session, Republicans and Democrats alike posted highly critical messages to FB and Twitter, most of which involved some version of “what is the matter with these people?”
So– who elected these folks?
The Center for Civic Literacy recently worked with the Indiana Bar Foundation and others on the most recent iteration of the Civic Health Index, a periodic state by state measurement of civic engagement. In Indiana, the effort is co-chaired by Randy Shepard and Lee Hamilton, and the survey results may give us a clue about why so many elected officials in Indiana—not just in the legislature—are so disconnected from the attitudes and policy preferences of so many Hoosiers. That disconnect, as we saw with RFRA, leaves them susceptible to small but highly motivated interest group lobbyists.
Let me just share a few of the most pertinent metrics.
- 6.5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem. Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
- 17.5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
- 69.2% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
- In a presidential year, 69.2% of us vote. We rank 37th.
- In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
- Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.
There is considerable evidence that higher levels of civic knowledge correlate with increased civic engagement. The statistics on civic knowledge are incredibly depressing: only 36% percent of Americans know that we have three branches of government, 58% cannot name a single federal Cabinet department—it goes on and on. People who don’t know how government works don’t participate in self-government.
The Center for Civic Literacy was formed to examine the causes and consequences of low civic literacy. Lack of participation is one of those consequences.
The question we can’t answer–at least, not yet–is: what would it take to get more people involved? What needs to happen in order to get more people out to vote? There are certainly reasons other than low civic literacy for low levels of civic participation—lack of competitive contests in gerrymandered districts, for example– but until we raise the level of citizens’ knowledge, we aren’t going to raise their levels of participation.
And without significantly higher levels of informed participation, we’ll just keep electing our problems.