Voter Apathy?

Today, I’m participating in an event on partisan redistricting hosted by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. Following are the remarks I will share:


Indiana had the lowest turnout rate in the nation in the last midterm elections. There are a number of reasons for that depressing statistic.

First of all, although Hoosiers are rarely in the vanguard of anything, we do remain on the cutting edge when it comes to voter suppression tactics—to begin with, we were among the very first states to pass a so-called “voter ID” law, and ours remains one of the nation’s strictest. For example, it isn’t enough to have a government issued picture ID; it must also have an expiration date.(Unlike, for example, student IDs.)

The legal challenge to that law was unsuccessful largely because its actual operation was speculative at that point; since the Seventh Circuit rejected that challenge, it has become clear even to Judge Posner, who voted to uphold the law, that its sole purpose was to discourage voting by poor and minority voters who might be expected to vote for Democrats. Voter ID laws were a “remedy” for a non-existent problem—in-person voter fraud.

But the lawmakers in what Harrison Ullmann used to call the World’s Worst Legislature haven’t rested on their laurels: this last session, lawmakers voted down an effort to keep the polls open until 8:00—Indiana’s polls close at 6:00, much earlier than most states. This makes it much more difficult for non-professional working people to vote. Lawmakers have also left in place the ability of a single member of a county election board to prevent the establishment of a voting center. Here in Marion County, the Republican member of the election board has persistently blocked efforts to do so. Wouldn’t want to make voting more convenient!

Laws making voting more onerous are only one reason among many for low voter turnout and disappointing citizen engagement. I am going to suggest three others that combine to depress interest in government and the electoral process: gerrrymandering, widespread distrust of government, and low levels of civic literacy. Today, our focus is on gerrymandering.

Every ten years, the Indiana General Assembly engages in what individual legislators will call redistricting, and what the rest of us will call gerrymandering, after former Vice-President Elbridge Gerry. It will be an intensely partisan endeavor—and that’s true no matter which party is in charge—and it will be viewed by most Hoosiers as highly technical and profoundly boring.

That redistricting, however, will have a much greater effect on how Indiana is governed for the ensuing decade than most, if not all, of the votes cast in the elections that will follow. Whichever party wins a majority in the November elections preceding redistricting wins the privilege of drawing the new maps—and those maps will have an outsized influence over the political agenda for the state.

The goal, of course, is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible–more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, which makes those districts safe as well. While we have engaged in this effort since Vice-President Gerry’s time (and he signed the Declaration of Independence!), the advent of computers has made the process far, far more efficient—and arguably, far more damaging.

Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships–even precincts–are evaluated solely on the basis of their voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results–not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness.

Let’s tick off some of the more obvious results of this process:

1) The interests of cities, neighborhoods, etc., are less likely to be represented.

2) Safe districts enable sloppy legislation and dubious ethics: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant. (Eric Turner was a recent example. There are many others.)

3) Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could arguably be better directed.

4) Safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution: at the federal level, campaign finance reform is just one example.

5) Lack of competitiveness also makes it impossible to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their unneeded money to those running in competitive districts. So when the folks with “Family Friendly Libraries” send a check to Rep. Censor, who is unopposed, he then sends it to Sen. MeToo, who is in a hot race; but Sen. MeToo’s campaign report shows only a contribution from Rep. Censor.

These are just a few of the more obvious effects of gerrymandering; there are plenty of others. Two of those other consequences that may be less obvious deserve special attention and concern.

First, the lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained. Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when those efforts are pointless? Not only do voters lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with a choice between the anointed and the annoying–marginal candidates who offer no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge of any sort. Such contests simply exacerbate voter apathy.

You may think I am exaggerating–after all, how many “safe” districts can there be? Well, let me tell you–our legislators may not be the swiftest when it comes to a lot of issues, but they have self-perpetuation down to a science. In 2014, there were 25 state Senate districts up for election. In 11 of them, there was only one major party candidate running. A total of 2 Democrats and 9 Republicans were guaranteed election barring unforeseen circumstances.

Two major party candidates faced off in the general election in only 14 of the 25 districts up for election that year. And that’s not an anomaly.

As a friend of mine has aptly put it, “Almost half of our representatives and senators did not have to conduct a pesky campaign that required a defense of past service or a dialogue over local issues.”

We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at the local zoning hearing when a liquor store is applying for permission to locate down the street! I would suggest that people save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places may NOT include the voting booth.

Second, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of politics, and the gridlock it causes. How? Because when a safe district effectively disenfranchises voters in one party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the base voters, the party faithful– who also tend to be the most ideological. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line– to placate the most rigid and ideological elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to win among the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide. Then we wonder why the winners can’t compromise and get the people’s business accomplished!

There are significant policy implications of a victory for the Republicans or Democrats: to the extent that the parties represent different philosophies—and these days, they unquestionably do– a victory in November means getting the “edge” for ten years in imposing one of those philosophies on Indiana government, and effectively disenfranchising not only those who vote for the other party, but also the more moderate voters in their own ranks.

Perhaps the worst consequence of all this is that reduced participation in the political process, and the well-founded belief that large numbers of citizens have been rendered voiceless and politically impotent, has significant implications for the legitimacy of government.

Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the eligible voters in the district?

Of course, there are reasons other than partisan redistricting for the growth of safe seats. In “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop detailed the increasing tendency of Americans to live in areas where others share their values. We can’t eliminate such residential “self-sorting,” a phenomenon that has given us bright blue cities in very red states, but we can and should eliminate the intentional gerrymandering that exacerbates it. If we don’t, it really won’t matter who wins election, because the winner will encounter the intransigence and gridlock that is such a vivid consequence of the current system, especially at the federal level. That gridlock just adds to the pervasive cynicism about government, a cynicism that further reduces participation.

It is really time for the citizens of Indiana to rise up and demand changes to this system. The other speakers at this forum are far more expert than I am in the politics and laws governing redistricting, but I would suggest a few obvious elements that a fairer system should include:

1) areas of common economic interest and existing government boundaries should be respected to the greatest possible extent;

2) districts should be compact and rational in shape;

3) oddly-shaped districts clearly drawn for partisan advantage should be subject to the same standards courts now apply to districts that have been intentionally drawn to dilute the votes of racial minorities.

If political operatives can draw maps to create political advantage, they can also draw maps that are consistent with the premises of democracy.


  1. There are a few remaining determined voters who WILL find a way to get to the polls. In 2012 my then 82 year old friend, terribly crippled with osteoarthritis, diabetic and rapidly losing her vision (now blind) managed to lurch on her cane from her senior assisted living facility to the IndyGo bus stop, take a bus downtown, walked (lurched slowly) to cast her vote early to assure it would be counted. But, how can she be sure it was counted with the tricks and games the local Republicans are using to block votes from her “side of the aisle”?

  2. Spot On ! And thank you for your ability to share the FACTS about the real causes of voter apathy.

  3. “…..maps that are consistent with the premises of democracy”

    The result of the victory in the one man, one vote national battle in Dallas in the 80’s and early 90’s was that the realignment map for the City of Dallas was redrawn as exact as possible to be CONSISTENT WITH THE PREMISES OF DEMOCRACY.

    We won the battle and also prevented the appeal of the issue. But in the long run democracy might have been better served with an appeal that would have eventually reached the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the decision was only backed up by a Federal District Judge.

    The Court was more evenly balance back then. Democracy might have won on appeal.

  4. Has there ever been a legal challenge to these antics based on the idea that they are an unconstitutional denial of the right to vote?

  5. Redistricting, Deflating Footballs and other procedures …

    Its referred to as, gaining a competitive advantage.

    However, in the real world its knows as cheating. Why
    waste effort voting in a district that is totally stacked
    against the political party you favor.

  6. This issue, more than any other issue, needs to be what the 2016 election is all about. If this country cannot solve this then we will not solve any problem facing us.

  7. William–the Court has taken the position that redistricting is a “political question”–that is, a question to be resolved through the political process–and the Courts should not intervene absent clear evidence of an effort to disenfranchise minority voters. Several years ago, the Court declined to hear a case from Pennsylvania raising precisely the issue you suggest.

  8. Don’t forget to mention voter cross checking that is occurring around the country. Cross checking voter registration that deletes duplicate voter names because they may appear in another city, county or state. This is keeping eligible voters from voting too. But it’s hush hush from the media.

  9. This fall, I’m going to make sure everyone I can reach is registered to vote, takes advantage of absentee voting when appropriate, and that they have a ride to the City-County Bldg or a polling place. Through the years, I’ve gone door-to-door, walked in parades, worked the polls and the phone banks, written letters, and held fundraisers. I’ve decided the most effective thing I can do at this point to get out the vote. We simply can’t roll over and let these single-minded, anti-female and socially-backwards people sit in leadership positions any longer. The way to change it is to VOTE!

  10. Nowhere in the article is mentioned that voter registration in Indiana went from 69% to 93% in just 20-25 years. Even the Marion County Democratic Chairman admitted that the reason Indiana’s turnout is low is because our voter registration rolls are bloated with the names of voters who are deceased or listed in multiple locations for having moved. Indiana is one of the worst states at cleaning up its voter registration rolls, i.e. removing duplicates, and has been successfully sued because of the problem. That’s the reason why Indiana has the nation’s lowest turnout rate. If our rolls were cleaned up like in other states, then we wouldn’t be at the bottom.

    As far as the photo ID requirement, Indiana’s turnout compared to adult age population hasn’t dropped one bit since that requirement was adopted.

    Contrary to your assertion, Sheila, both parties in Marion County are against voting centers, which are multiple locations in a county any of which a voter can cast a ballot on election day. ((Which is a shame as they are much needed.) You’re talking about satellite early voting locations. The local GOP is against that. But early voting doesn’t really enhance turnout. It only changes when it happens.

    The other things, like gerrymandering and time the polls are open, have been around forever. I agree non-competitive elections are a problem. Why not advocate eliminating the separate municipal election and put it during the mid-term election? (Some people want to move it to the presidential election year, but the mid-term would be better.)

  11. Here is another thing. Courts have intervened in the drawing of district lines when it comes to requiring the creation of majority black and Hispanic districts. The law requires the creation of districts whenever possible with 60% or so minority population. That’s why you see many of the weirdly drawn and less than compact districts. Republicans love the requirement that these districts be created because it allows them to concentrate more traditionally Democratic voters into fewer districts. You end up with more black Democrats but fewer Democrats overall.

  12. When I was young and being offered culture which would make sense of the complexity of life facing me, things were initially presented simplistically. Family, God, love, democracy, capitalism, the Constitution, freedom, obligations, learning, manners, responsibility, and Republicans were good; communism, socialism, irresponsibility, welfare, despots and Democrats were bad.

    In my inexplicable race to old all of those things have been examined in more detail and have evolved also, but I’m still trying to make sense of the world into which I came.

    Only a few things have held up as entirely good over that cross examination.

    Love, family, and freedom stood the test of time, the others have grayed with maturity.

    I’m pretty sure that we owe our freedom to democracy. So maybe democracy should be on the all good list too, but, on the other hand it’s such a pain. No wonder we prefer benevolent dictator hierarchies for most of our non-government institutions.

    But, on the other hand, defending freedom, one of the all goods, in my day and times has boiled down to defending democracy.

    Gerrymandering is an attack on democracy, and therefore freedom, and therefore should be treated as the same class of threat as Communism.

    Pretty simple stuff like we were presented in the old days before we were promoted to adults.

  13. Paul, “The law requires the creation of districts whenever possible with 60% or so minority population.”

    I did not know that. I assume that it’s a Federal statute?

    I can understand why purposefully creating districts that marginalize political minorities restrain democracy but has someone decided that should apply to other minorities as well?

  14. On the other hand, thinking further, if districts were required to be drawn with populations that mirrored the national population, and minorities only voted for their own “kind”, there would be no minority representation.

  15. JoAnn, your 82 year old friend could vote absentee. There is an application that must be completed. I can think of two reasons she could vote absentee per the Web Site : I am a voter with disabilities. I am a voter at least 65 years of age.

    If we could have the Voter Registration List cleaned up as Paul mentioned, I would be in favor of Absentee Voting for any reason.

  16. Bad officials are elected by good citizens…who DON’T VOTE. Your state and mine (and 48 others) are good examples of that old saying.

  17. Louie; Maria knew that she qualified for Absentee Ballot but she wanted to go in person, she was proud to vote every election day and proud to vote for Barack Obama. She spent election night, November 4, 2008, with me; we yelled, we applauded, we cheered, we cried and we gave thanks. Her last words to me before we finally went to bed that night were, “You know we have to pray every day for the safety of President Obama and his family.” We have continued to do this and continue to support him; knowing he faces dangers and obstacles you and I cannot know. She is very ill now; and still she always blesses President Obama and his family in letters her letters to me which she must dicate to a friend as she is blind. She worked for City/County government for many years as I did; we began under Mayor Lugar and worked through Mayor Bill Hudnut’s 16 years. I would qualify for Absentee Ballots but I understand her need and determination to make our presence known on election day. I do thank you for your thoughts and always appreciate your comments.

  18. I think politicians do what they like as in any career stratum. Parents urge their children to go where they may become family (even one-person) founders themselves. Party leaders did not stick around in the service leadership roles in Wayne County after Nixon. LWV went where AAUW, ABW, the auxiliaries went. . .to school or full-time earnings.

  19. Paul Ogden, Indiana’s place as having the lowest voter turnout for November 2014 is because Indiana had the lowest voter turnout for November 2014. It had absolutely nothing to do with not purging voters (second time I’ve seen you claim this, btw). Also, where, oh, where are the sources for your claims?

    Where I work on election day, we had barely a handful of voters show up who had been purged. We called the election board to find out why, and we were told the voter was dead – even though said voter was standing right in front of me wanting to vote (luckily, she was a 70-ish woman with a sense of humor; the 30-something guy we checked on, though, was quite freaked out to hear the election board thought he’d died, but I digress). That’s a bit of anecdotal evidence that doesn’t prove a whole lot, but at least I show up with evidence.

    Erroneous voter purging notwithstanding, I’ve seen the turnout of actual voters dwindle every year, i.e., the total number of voters is deminishing. That has absolutely nothing with purging the rolls of voters who have moved or died.

    Perhaps if you think voter rolls need to be purged, you should volunteer for the job.

    As for Sheila’s insightful post, perhaps voter fatigue is a more appropriate description? I know that usually refers to why voters vote for the candidates at the top of the ballot, get tired of reading, and just don’t vote for candidates in the lower echelons, but also it could mean that voters are simply tired of feeling they have no voice.

Comments are closed.