Cynical Electorate not Showing at the Polls
INDIANAPOLIS — Why vote? It"s a question many in Lake County are asking in the wake of a voting fraud scandal that essentially invalidated their choices in last May"s primary election.
It"s a question that hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers answered with inaction and apathy during the last two general elections.
It"s a question that has forced party leaders to rethink how Indiana chooses candidates for statewide office; even to consider returning the gubernatorial nomination to the convention system.
Judging by the numbers, Indiana has a crisis on its hands. Voter turnout has been in a downward spiral, hitting an abysmal 38 percent statewide in the 2002 non-presidential year.
Presidential years haven"t been much better. In Allen County, turnout dropped from 73 percent in 1992 to 55 percent in 2000; in Marion County, from 70 percent to 49 percent; in Lake County, from 71 percent to 55 percent.
"The electorate has gotten so cynical and jaded about the whole process," laments state Sen. Murray Clark, R-Indianapolis. A major source of cynicism? The perception that politicians are crooked and the process can"t be trusted.
Sadly, that"s been affirmed in recent weeks in Lake County where five candidates won nomination in May thanks only to absentee ballots, many of which were later deemed null and void.
Judge Steven Carter threw out one primary result election and raised serious doubts about that of East Chicago"s Democratic
Mayor Robert Pastrick, re-nominated with the help of 155 invalid absentee ballots. That number was not enough to affect the outcome of the race; an appeal by challenger George Pabey seeking a second election is pending before the Indiana Court of Appeals. A grand jury began meeting in Lake County Sept. 19 to issue criminal charges against those involved in the scam.
"It goes back to the question, "Why should I vote?" " says Secretary of State Todd Rokita. "People feel, why bother to vote when we hear these stories? What is stopping some political party hack from signing somebody"s name on a ballot?"
Rokita, a Republican, has made voter education a priority of his office. He"d like criminal jursidiction so his office could pursue cases of fraud. And he recently found money in his budget to hire a training, education and outreach coordinator. "It"s a cultural issue," Rokita says. The solution will require "a cultural change in our priorities."
Luke Messer, executive director of the Indiana Republican Party, sees the problem firsthand when he tries to recruit candidates. Thomas Jefferson"s ideal of a community in which able adults took turns serving couldn¹t be further removed from 2003 reality.
"Becoming a candidate is a huge commitment," Messer says. "It takes time, it takes fund-raising dollars, it takes dedication — and it takes guts to put yourself out there in front of your neighborhood or state. The unfortunate result is that a lot of people who would be great public servants never decide to run."
If it"s hard to recruit candidates, it"s harder still to fill the hundreds of vacancies for precinct committee officers, polling site officials and volunteers to stuff envelopes and distribute campaign materials.
That"s one reason Dan Parker, Messer"s Democratic counterpart, would like to see the Indiana General Assembly consider returning the power to nominate gubernatorial candidates to party conventions. As it is now, there¹s nothing of substance for loyal party workers to do. And turnout in the primary is so low that it"s hard to argue such a move would deprive voters of a meaningful selection. But giving party delegates the chance to decide a key nominee would make that job interesting again, he says.
Considering dismal primary turnout, it"s safe to assume that special interests currently have more input in the nominating process than ordinary citizens. In the 2002 primary cycle, a mere 22 percent of registered voters came out. "TV advertising has taken over the role the political parties used to have," Parker contends.
So why vote?
Every election year, more Hoosiers answer that question with a shrug than with the can-do attitude for which we pride ourselves.
In little more than a month, we"ll have a chance to exercise our franchise in little-noticed City Hall elections. Fraud, busy schedules, apathy. All are issues of concern. None are reasons to shirk our civic duty.
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Andrea Neal, formerly editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is an adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.