Column: It’s past time for new approaches to state voter turnout problem


Column by Leigh E. Morris 

Leigh Morris

Although participation increased in the 2020 General Election in Indiana and across the country, voter turnout is (or should be) a major concern.  It’s especially problematic in Indiana where it has been lagging for years.  It hit rock bottom in 2014 when, by many measures, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout of all the states.  Since then, Indiana has never achieved a rating higher than 38th out of the 50 states in terms of voter turnout.

Why should that be?   I compared Indiana’s 2020 performance with the 15 other states that had the highest voter turnout to try to understand why Indiana’s performance has been fair to poor.

The best analysis I’ve seen suggests that voter turnout in Indiana is negatively influenced by three factors:

  1.  Barriers to voter registration.  Two solutions seem to have promise:
  • Same Day Registration (SDR).  Eleven of the 15 highest-ranking states have same-day voter registration that allows voters to register or fix a registration issue when they vote.  Minnesota has been number one in turnout for 9 out of the last 10 presidential elections.  
  • Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).  Oregon was the first state to automatically register eligible citizens who have driver’s licenses (except those who decline). The state has already seen significant registration increases since implementing the policy in January 2016. In 2017, Indiana took a rather tentative step toward encouraging voter registration by providing that that when individuals transact business with a license branch (other than for a motor vehicle driver’s license, permit, or identification card), they must be asked if they want to register to vote or change their voter registration record. If so, they are given a paper voter registration application form they must file with the county voter registration office.
  1. Inconvenience of Voting.  Although early voting and relaxed requirements for absentee voting have provided alternatives to a requirement that voters accommodate to rigid voting schedules on election day, it appears that additional efforts might significantly improve turnout.  Three states with the highest voter turnout—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—have adopted vote-by-mail approaches that have received high marks by voters and election administrators alike.  Every registered voter receives their ballot 2 to 3 weeks prior to the election and may return it by mail or at a local drop box.  Colorado also maintains vote centers for those who prefer to vote in person. 
  2. Lack of Competitive Races.  Joseph Losco, who heads the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, says that the heart of Indiana’s poor voter turnout is the lack of competitive elections.  In 2020, 30% of the Indiana House and Senate races were uncontested in the general election.   Two factors seem central to this issue:
  • Gerrymandering, which results in legislative and congressional districts that are designed to protect incumbents rather than represent the electorate.
  • Lack of qualified candidates, resulting in uncontested positions or landslide victories that suggest the futility of voting.  Many qualified persons don’t seek office because of disdain for the negative  partisanship and character assassination that is so often present, as well as the cost—both financial and personal–involved with candidacy.

Improving voter turnout in Indiana isn’t about altering the outcome of any specific election, or about helping any political party.  We need to find better tools and methods to make the case that voting matters, even when it won’t change the outcome of an election. 

We shouldn’t settle for Indiana being dead last in voter turnout (2014) or even 42nd out of 50 states in 2020. The General Assembly has been slow to address the problem, perhaps because of its complexity.  A well-structured Summer Study Group might help get the ball moving.  We shouldn’t wait another year!   

Leigh E. Morris, La Porte

7 Responses to “Column: It’s past time for new approaches to state voter turnout problem”

  1. china joe

    Jan 11. 2021

    Vote in person with a picture ID and absentee voting to those who request and military ! That’s it real simple in the whole country !!!!

    Reply to this comment
  2. Bill Proud

    Jan 11. 2021

    Very good article. I liked the voting centers we had this fall.

    Reply to this comment
  3. lawman

    Jan 11. 2021

    why reinvent the wheel? bottom line-people too lazy to go vote. ya sure-vote by mail-much easier to manipulate. morris says it is ”inconvenient”; then you don’t need to vote

    Reply to this comment
    • Joe

      Jan 12. 2021

      Why not make it as easy as possible for people to exercise their Constitutional right to vote? Peoples’ availability for a 12 hour window for one day in November should not dictate whether or not their voices are eligible to be heard.

      Reply to this comment
  4. lawman

    Jan 12. 2021

    Joe-there are already many ways to avoid the ”dreaded 12 hour window” just vote early at the proper polling place. a person can pick and choose a month ahead.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Rick Gersch

    Mar 12. 2021

    I am convinced that voter fraud is a far greater concern than a low voter turnout. In fact, I don’t really see that low voter turnout should be a concern or problem at all. Why should we prefer more people participating in voting IF the additional voters who are currently so unconcerned that they don’t bother? These would be the Ill-informed voters. How would more ill-informed voters improve our government? In addition, ALL of the suggested “improvements” to increase voter turnout will certainly increase voter fraud. If anything we should return to one day voting with absentee voting when necessary.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Smartergirl

    Apr 30. 2021

    I see most of you who think Indiana is fine, thank you, have never worked in an election. It is H.A.R.D. to commit voter fraud even with the loosest regulations. And who would go through such hoops to increase by one vote and risk a fine and up to 5 years in prison. It is hard for people who work 12 hour shifts and who work a long distance away to participate on voting day. I think an ID is a helpful on preventing fraud but is hard to get for people who do not drive, are in school, or have no transportation. I would like to be able to get an ID in my closest town hall, not have to go to the license branch. Early in person voting is a great boon to better turn out. I enjoyed not having to go on election day with it’s “good ol’ boy” election crew. Also, anyone who has not voted should keep their opinions to themselves about politics, you have not put your vote in so you have little right to complain. I think I have found a great cause to work on, getting young people registered and motivated to vote. After all, it is their future on the line. Us old folks need to start to step aside.

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