Category Archives: Local Government

Indiana Legislators Don’t Care What You Want…Or Don’t

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is one of a handful of new media sites trying to fill the dangerous void in news about local and state government. (As I frequently complain on this site, so-called “legacy media” like the Indianapolis Star have emptied their newsrooms of reporters as they’ve focused on cutting costs at the expense of real journalism. The result has been a news desert when it comes to informing citizens about their state and local governments.)

A recent column in The Capital Chronicle focused on what is perhaps the most annoying characteristic of Indiana’s General Assembly–its pursuit of legislation untethered to the needs or desires of Hoosier constituents.

As the columnist began;

My Christmas wish is pretty simple: I would like lawmakers to listen to what Hoosiers want. ALL Hoosiers, not just the loudest slice of their Republican constituents.

Poll after poll and survey after survey shows what Indiana residents are worried about, and what they aren’t.

Bellwether Research’s latest poll in early December surveyed 1,100 Hoosiers representing both the demographic and geographic layout of Indiana. It asked about their top priorities.

Wishes one and two were lowering health care costs and affordable housing, at 31% and 21% respectively….Next up was increasing K-12 education funding at 17%. Nothing after is in double digits

As Hoosier lawmakers prepare for the upcoming session, however, they are signaling their preoccupation with culture-war issues. Some are focusing on restricting dissemination of abortion pills through the mail; according to the polling, exactly 3% of Hoosiers care about restricting access to mailed abortion pills. (Quite the contrary: according to the article, the GOP’s own internal polling reveals that a solid majority supports abortion rights, and a survey by Ball State found that 56% of Hoosiers believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.)

That poll also found that 56% of Hoosiers believe marijuana should be legal for personal use and 29% for medicinal purposes. Only 15% say it should not be legal…

Surveys also find only 6% of Hoosiers making oversight of K-12 curriculum a top concern, but the “usual suspects” in the Indiana Statehouse are busy preparing bills to combat “critical race theory,” which is not only not being taught, but is a rather rarified field of research into American legal systems pursued by a subset of law professors. Use of the terminology is not only inaccurate, it is intentionally misleading–a none-too-subtle “dog whistle” to White supremicists who want teachers to ignore certain aspects of the national story.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Indiana if our legislature failed to pick on LGBTQ Hoosiers. House Education Chairman Robert Behning has promised introduction of a “don’t say gay” bill–demonstrating that Indiana lawmakers aren’t intimidated by that pesky court ruling that found Florida’s “Don’t say gay” bill unconstitutional.

Most lawmakers send out constituent surveys on hot topics that they know will be coming up. They are clearly less scientific than the polls I have mentioned but even when legislators directly hear from their most engaged constituents they ignore the results.

Remember gun licensing from earlier this year? Not a single survey — that journalists could find — supported abandoning the carry permit. In fact they almost all said to keep the system as-is. But legislators tossed the licensing out with the bathwater — against advice of the Indiana State Police superintendent and the majority of law enforcement groups.

Growing up I was always told, “be careful what you ask for.” It seems lately the phrase for Hoosiers should shift to, “be careful what you DON’T ask for,” because you are increasingly more likely to get it.

The disconnect between what Hoosiers want and what we get from our lawmakers is a direct result of gerrymandering that produces safe seats and allow lawmakers to ignore the policy preferences of a majority of Indiana citizens.

Gerrymandering, after all, is the very best voter suppression tactic. Why bother to vote when the result has been foreordained–or, to use Trump language, when the election has been rigged? Gerrymandering amplifies the power of the fringes–the ideologues and culture warriors who vote in primaries–and effectively disenfranchises the rest of us.

Reporting on the antics at the Statehouse is one of the very few checks on lawmakers bent on pursing their own cultural fixations, and central Indiana has been ill-served by the Star’s devolution into sports and what has been called the “beer beat”–reports on new watering holes. That makes the arrival of the Indiana Capital Chronicle very welcome. The Chronicle describes itself as an “independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections.”

It’s probably wishful thinking, but perhaps a “comprehensive look” at what Harrison Ullmann dubbed the World’s Worst Legislature will trigger efforts at reform….

Politics Kills

The Washington Post recently ran an article with a provocative headline: “Can Politics Kill You? Research Says the Answer Increasingly is Yes.” Here’s the lede:

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its third full winter, two studies reveal an uncomfortable truth: The toxicity of partisan politics is fueling an overall increase in mortality rates for working-age Americans.

In one study, researchers concluded that people living in more-conservative parts of the United States disproportionately bore the burden of illness and death linked to COVID. The other, which looked at health outcomes more broadly, found that the more conservative a state’s policies, the shorter the lives of working-age people.

It turns out that it is state-level policies that determine these health outcomes. States — those “laboratories of democracy” so often lauded by more conservative politicians– shape the environments in which we live our lives in more ways than we commonly recognize, and those environments have a significant effect on people’s well-being and longevity.  As the article notes,

Some states have expanded their social safety nets, raising minimum wages and offering earned income tax credits while using excise taxes to discourage behaviors — such as smoking — that have deleterious health consequences. Other states have moved in the opposite direction.

Indiana is one of those “opposite direction” states.

Covid death rates were 11 percent higher in states with Republican-controlled governments and 26 percent higher in areas where voters lean conservative. Similar results emerged about hospital ICU capacity when the concentration of political power in a state was conservative.

Researchers from Harvard found that the disparities in rates of  death and disease aren’t limited to COVID: In states where a “chasm of inequality” persists, communities of color face a much higher risk of chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable to multiple serious diseases.

Another  study calculated that, in 2019, if all states had implemented liberal policies on the environment, gun safety, criminal justice, health and welfare, labor, marijuana, and economic and tobacco taxes, at least 170,000 lives would have been  be saved. On the other hand, if states all had conservative versions of those policies, 217,000 more people would have died.

It’s likely to get worse in those Red states, thanks to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

With abortion services no longer legal nationwide, university researchers have estimated that maternal deaths could increase by up to 25 to 30 percent, worsening the nation’s maternal mortality and morbidity crisis. Americans live shorter lives than people in peer nations, in part because it is the worst place among high-income countries to give birth.

The stark differences between Republican and Democratic responses to COVID may have  benefitted Democrats politically, as well as medically.

Some midterm election postmortems suggested that the significantly higher numbers of Republican deaths had  diminished Republican turnout sufficiently to help Democratic candidates win tight races. While most knowledgable observers discounted that likelihood, or opined that it operated only in extremely close contests, researchers did identify a less obvious way in which COVID death rate disparities benefited Democrats politically.

Per Politico:

Data from the U.S. Postal Service and Census Bureau shows how the pandemic drove urban professionals who were able to work remotely — disproportionately Democrats — out of coastal, progressive cities to seek more space or recreational amenities in the nation’s suburbs and Sun Belt. This moved liberals out of electoral districts where Democrats reliably won by large margins into many purple regions that had the potential to swing with just small changes to the map.

Politico looked at several close races in places that had gained population during the pandemic–races that seemed to confirm that hypothesis. One was in Arizona.

In one of the most watched 2022 races, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — an ardent election denier and so-called Trump in heels — was expected to narrowly defeat Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. FiveThirtyEight simulations gave her 2-to-1 odds and a 2.2-point margin.

But Arizona’s most populous region, Maricopa County gained nearly 100,000 people since 2018, and Democrats’ margins rose by 17 points since that year. Lake lost by just 17,000 votes.

A major study published by the National Bureau of Economic Researchers concluded that there was a “substantially higher excess death rates for registered Republicans when compared to registered Democrats, with almost all of the difference concentrated in the period after vaccines were widely available.” Overall, the study found that the excess death rate for Republicans was 76%, higher than the excess death rate for Democrats.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of vaccine efficacy, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis–object of the GOP’s current enthusiasm–  is ramping up his vendetta against vaccination. DeSantis is a perfect representative of today’s GOP, a party peddling policies that really are killing people.

Oh, Indiana….

Monday evening, I spoke to the League of Women Voters in Ft. Wayne about women, the midterms–and the effective disenfranchisement of voters in Indiana. I’m posting an abbreviated version of my remarks below.
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The results of the 2022 midterm elections stunned political observers who had anticipated a politics-as-usual rout of the party in control of the White House—especially this time, when the omens for the Democrats were very negative.

As we know, that Red wave failed to materialize. Democrats held the Senate, and lost the House by a margin small enough to complicate Republican plans to thwart Biden’s agenda. To say that these results were unprecedented is an understatement. And while it is never accurate to attribute the outcome of an election to a single cause, the data clearly points to the overwhelming importance of women voters, and their anger over Dobbs.

The Republican Party’s war on women’s autonomy is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I ran for Congress in 1980, I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, and I decisively won a Republican primary here in deep-Red Indiana. Since then, the GOP has become the party of fundamentalist Christians, cultural conservatives and Christian Nationalists, and in response, women voters have shown a growing preference for Democratic candidates. The Dobbs decision, overruling Roe v. Wade, supercharged what was already a substantial gender gap.

Dobbs attacked the doctrine of substantive due process, often called the right to privacy. That’s shorthand for the principle that in a free society, there are personal decisions that should not be made by government. The doctrine draws a line between the myriad issues appropriate for resolution by majorities acting through government, and decisions that government in a free society has no business making.

The constitutional question is “who gets to make this decision?”

The deeply dishonest ruling in Dobbs would allow fundamental rights–to bodily autonomy, to the choice of a marriage partner, to decisions about procreation– to be decided by legislatures  that have theoretically been chosen by “democratic” majorities.

I say “theoretically because in states like Indiana, gerrymandering allows lawmakers to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

The decision in Dobbs is part of a larger problem—one that the League is clearly aware of.  I think it is fair to say that, if American democracy was working properly, it is unlikely we would be here. Our governing institutions would reflect the policy preferences of large majorities of voters. But our democracy is not working properly, and gerrymandering may be the single most destructive element of our multiple electoral dysfunctions.

Partisan redistricting undermines democracy and voter choice; in a rapidly urbanizing country, it has given rural voters—who reliably vote Republican—vastly disproportionate political power. Thanks to gerrymandering, for example, the last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.” Gerrymandering has insulated lawmakers from democratic accountability. In the run-up to the 2000 election, the nonpartisan Cook Report calculated that only one out of twenty Americans lived in a genuinely competitive Congressional District.

Gerrymandering has also weakened the GOP and abetted its takeover by extremists. Thanks to the Republicans’ very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– many of the candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities.  Former Speaker John Boehner dubbed those Representatives the “lunatic caucus”–they knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.

It is important to recognize that the erosion of democratic self-government– making a mockery of the ideal of “one person, one vote”– also poses a threat to women’s continued economic and political progress. That is because, as democratic systems falter, it is the theocrats and rightwing populists who stand ready to assume control. The growth of populism over the past decade has been global; in the United States, its appeal is based largely on nostalgia for an imaginary past in which “those people”—Black, Brown, female, gay–knew their place and no one questioned the rightful dominance of the White Christian Male. To say that such a worldview threatens women’s progress is to belabor the obvious.

Just over 100 years have passed since women finally secured the right to vote. The recent midterm elections made it very clear that most women in America have no intention of relinquishing the hard-won rights that followed enfranchisement– including the all-important right to control our own reproduction.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that in November of this year, the votes of American women saved democracy.

But then, of course, there was Indiana. We were the only state to elect an election-denier as Secretary of State, and Indiana kept its legislative Republican super-majority

The reason Indiana is deeply uncompetitive? Gerrymandering.

I served on the legislative study committee formed in response to the efforts of the League and Common Cause, and watched as most  Republicans on that committee ignored data and evidence and the huge turnout of Hoosier voters at every public meeting who demanded reform. It became very clear that the beneficiaries of gerrymandering will never voluntarily give up the power to keep themselves in control.

Other states have combatted gerrymandering via state constitutional amendment. But Hoosiers will never have the opportunity to vote on such an amendment. Indiana has no referendum or initiation process.  Amendments to Indiana’s constitution can only be put on the ballot through referral from the legislature, and the legislature must pass precisely the same language in two separate sessions. In other words, the super-majority that benefits from gerrymandering would have to vote—in two separate legislative sessions—to put the matter to a popular vote.

That will happen when pigs fly. (Pigs may fly first…)

Gerrymandering results in voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Thanks to the lack of competitiveness, Indiana’s turnout in the midterms was abysmal.

The creation of safe districts makes it very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal opposing candidate. In many statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor runs unopposed.

So–what can Hoosier voters do?

We can certainly hope for passage of the federal “For the People Act,” which would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, ban partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders.

In Indiana, we can work through organizations like the League to get out the vote—encouraging people who have concluded that their votes won’t count to reconsider, and especially encouraging them to vote in the primaries, which are dominated by the ideological extremes in both parties. A high turnout would demonstrate that a number of supposedly safe districts aren’t so safe when more people vote..

We can try to recruit candidates in both parties who are willing to run on an anti-gerrymandering platform.

We can continue efforts to educate voters, and explain why gerrymandering is so pernicious.

And we can lobby for the right to initiate constitutional amendments.

But the reality is, in the absence of federal action, Indiana citizens who want change are effectively disenfranchised.

Bloomington Media Fail

Last week, I got a message from Jim and Tomi Allison. Tomi is a past, long-serving Mayor  of Bloomington, Indiana (from 1983-1995) and she and Jim had  sent this letter to the editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times. After over a week with no acknowledgement of its receipt–let alone a reply–they were convinced that it wouldn’t be published.

Here is the letter:

In the coming election American voters will have a rare opportunity to defend their country’s historic ideal of representative government—a government chosen by and for the people, regardless of race or gender, in a peaceful transfer of power.  Never have the attacks on this ideal come so fast and furious:  the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol; the hi-tech gerrymanders mapped for partisan advantage in elections for Congress and state legislatures; the dark money flooding election campaigns; the attempts in state after state to suppress the vote by making it harder to register or cast a ballot; the attempts to seize partisan control of the vote counting process; the unscrupulous politicians who strive to shake confidence in our democratic elections and replace them with authoritarian rule.

What can Hoosier voters do in defense?  For one thing, they can come out and vote.  Secretary of State candidate Destiny Wells suggests that we should see Indiana as neither red nor blue, but as a purple state with a low voter turnout.  In other words, the laws passed by our representatives would be more to our liking if more voters turned out for the elections that seated those representatives.  Whereas Wells wants more turnout, her major opponent would discourage turnout by shortening the early voting period, supposedly to save money.

Never has it been so vital to put Country before Party in an election for Indiana’s Secretary of State.  Why?  Because our Secretary of State oversees the implementation of Indiana’s election rules.  And, as Political Science Professor Marjorie Hershey wrote in an H-T article of 10/02/1922, “If you can control the rules, you can control the outcome.”

This is no time to put Party before Country in the implementation of our state’s election rules—a state whose Constitution mandates and whose voters deserve free and fair elections.  That’s why my vote will go to Destiny Wells for Indiana Secretary of State.

I am sharing this letter, not just because I agree with it (although I do), but because I am bemused by the evident decision of a local newspaper to ignore a well-written, thoughtful letter from a former Mayor of the City.

I’ve thought a lot about the current, dangerous state of American politics and political debate, and I always come back to the role played by our current information environment–especially but not exclusively the disintegration of local news.

Americans these days live in alternate realities buttressed by our ability to confirm pre-existing biases by a click or two. But partisans’ vastly enhanced ability to indulge confirmation bias isn’t the only negative consequence of our fragmented media environment–studies have confirmed that people who occupy a self-selected “bubble” are insulated from news they need in order to make sound decisions and cast informed votes. (One recent study showed that large numbers of voters who supported Trump in 2016 had never heard about the accusations of fraud, the “grab ’em” tape, or other negative accusations, despite widespread reporting from more traditional sources.)

Here in Indiana, I have no idea how many people are aware of the Secretary of State’s race, aware of the very checkered past performance of the Republican candidate, or the fact that his nomination was the result of a petulant effort by Republicans angry at Governor Holcomb to deny his favored candidate the nod. Not being a Bloomington resident, I also don’t know whether the Herald-Times has reported on the race.

I do know that a local newspaper has a basic obligation to cover local and state politics  fairly and objectively–and in my opinion, that obligation extends to the publication of a well-written endorsement by a former Mayor.

I encourage readers in Bloomington–and elsewhere in Indiana, for that matter–to share Mayor Allison’s endorsement.

How To Rig A Vote

You really have to admire the chutzpah of so many Republican candidates, who are saying– presumably with straight faces–that if they win their contests, the election was free and fair, but if they lose, it was rigged.

I guess that’s how you tell whether an election was fair: if you win. Somehow, I find that less than persuasive…..

The GOP has been working to undermine public confidence in election results for years–in Indiana, when loathsome Todd Rokita was Secretary of State, he ushered in the nation’s first voter ID law. Whatever you think of these laws–and I’ve not been shy about my own analysis–they send a message to voters: some people are casting fraudulent votes, so maybe the election results shouldn’t be trusted. Doubts persist despite the fact that numerous studies have determined that in-person vote fraud is vanishingly rare.

Trump’s “big lie” magnified accusations of impropriety, and in a perfect demonstration of projection (accusing the other guy of your own misdeeds),  GOP candidates running for state offices with responsibilities for vote administration have all but trumpeted (sorry!) their intent to show Americans what rigging an election really looks like.

A report from the Washington Post focused on the threat, but the Post is far from the only media outlet sounding the warning.

In many states, the secretary of state is the chief elections official. It’s a crucial job, but not one that many Americans have heard of, much less paid attention to.

But secretary of state races are starting to get a lot more national attention and money. Former president Donald Trump and his allies have succeeded in boosting 2020 election deniers as candidates this primary season, and in many states, they’ve won the Republican nomination. That means, by next year, election deniers could be in charge of their states’ elections, including in key swing states for the 2024 presidential race.

Actually, as the article properly notes, it’s really hard to rig a national election in America because our election oversight is so decentralized. (That may be one of the very few virtues of state-level authority over the election process.) That said, there are “ways rogue secretaries of state could use their powers to throw a wrench in elections.”

They can follow Rokita’s example, and make it harder for people to cast ballots. Or they can change the procedures governing how votes are counted — like tightening restrictions on when mail-in ballots can arrive or what signatures are accepted.

They can also authorize endless audits and recounts.

There’s nothing wrong with checking results if there’s a dispute, said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky. But he and other election experts stress that endless audits don’t instill confidence in the democratic process; instead they allow bad actors to try to raise endless questions.

Rogue Secretaries of State can refuse to sign off on election results they don’t like, as a couple of officials did recently in New Mexico. At the very least, election-denying secretaries of state could publicly question election results, further eroding voter confidence and giving election deniers an air of legitimacy.

If enough election deniers get into office in time for the 2024 presidential election, experts worry they could together create enough chaos and confusion that they would weaken Americans’ faith in their government’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

The article identifies the states in which election deniers are currently running for positions that oversee elections. Indiana is one of them. Nevada, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut are others. Obviously, in some of those states the denialist is unlikely to win–but in deep red states like Indiana, where few voters are even aware of who’s running in down ballot races, and where majorities routinely vote for anyone with an “R” by their name, there is a real likelihood that these conspiracy theorists will win.

A columnist for the Indianapolis Star called Diego Morales–the Republican candidate for Secretary of State–“broadly unacceptable” for a number of reasons. I absolutely agree–but I wonder how many Hoosier voters know what a Secretary of State does, let alone who is running for the office.

A few weeks ago, I urged readers to support Destiny Wells, the truly impressive Democrat running for Secretary of State. I’ll just repeat how I ended that post: It’s bad enough to live in a state governed by people who want to arm the entire population (okay, to be fair, just the White part), make LGBTQ+ folks second-class citizens, control women’s bodies, and make it easier for a pandemic to kill you. The last thing we need is a nutcase “Big Lie” proponent overseeing our elections.

Just Vote Blue No Matter Who……up and down the ballot.