Bill Moreau is president and co-founder of The Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, publisher of The Indiana Citizen. Here is a summary of his remarks on civic responsibility at the City County Observer Community Service Awards on Nov. 1 in Evansville, Indiana.
Journalism, and our version of democracy, won’t survive without “civic philanthropists” and the generosity of civic-minded people and organizations.
Our nonprofit, The Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, is supported entirely by civic philanthropists. Our supporters are among the most active, engaged, informed citizens in our state. These are Hoosiers who support something they don’t need and may rarely use, because they are committed to bringing millions of other Hoosiers into the civic life of our state.
And make no mistake, the civic health of our state is poor. Let’s run through some data:
- In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Indiana’s voter registration and turnout numbers put us at or slightly above the national average.
- Beginning in 2000, Indiana has consistently been below and sometimes well below the national average for voter registration and turnout.
- In 2020, Indiana had record turnout, but we dropped from 41st to 46th because our turnout went up 9% when the country’s turnout went up 15%.
Also, we appear to be losing the next generation of voters. A national study of new registrants right before the 2020 election in the 18-19 age cohort showed Indiana dead last in the country, with 54% fewer registrants than four years earlier.
So Hoosiers are not showing up to vote, and we’re not well-informed when we do. When the American History questions on the naturalization exam were given to Americans in every state, Indiana ranked 41st, with 64% of the Hoosier test takers receiving an F and 14% a D.
At the same time that our civic metrics are headed in the wrong direction, traditional sources of information are drying up. More than 2,500 U.S. newspapers have shut down since 2005. Since 2008, more than 65% of local journalism jobs have disappeared.
In 1989, 43 credentialed journalists covered the Indiana Statehouse full-time during the General Assembly session. They included reporters from Terre Haute, Muncie, Bloomington, South Bend, Elkhart, Gary, Hammond, Louisville, and two from Evansville
In 2023, fewer than 10 journalists are in the Statehouse full time when the General Assembly is in session.
At the same time when what’s called “traditional journalism” is dying, there’s more access to information than at any time in our history, but many Americans get all their information from their social media feeds.
More sheer nonsense now hits my eyeballs than at any time in my life when I read through social media, but I have sufficient education and access to traditional media to separate truth from fiction. Many Americans don’t. Commentators and social scientists have coined the termed “tribalization” to describe what’s happening to America.
And here’s a scary look inside tribalization through a new study from the Center for Politics at University of Virginia. They surveyed more than 2,000 registered voters in August and September. The respondents were asked to pick their preference for president between President Biden and former President Trump.
- 70% of the Biden voters and 68% of the Trump voters believed electing officials from the opposite party would result in lasting harm to the United States.
- Roughly half of the Biden and Trump voters viewed those who supported the other party as threats to the American way of life.
- About 40% of both groups at least somewhat believed that the other side has become so extreme that is acceptable to use violence to prevent them from achieving their goals.
- 41%of Trump supporters at least somewhat agreed with the idea of red states seceding from the Union to form their own separate country, while 30% of Biden supporters thought blue states should do the same.
- Nearly one-third of Trump supporters and about one-quarter of Biden supporters at least somewhat agree that democracy is no longer a viable system and that the country should explore alternative forms of government to ensure stability and progress.
I think it’s high time I inject some good news.
There’s a startup local journalism initiative, which includes both The Indiana Citizen and thestatehousefile.com. It’s been named “Free Press Indiana” and it’s the product of years of study and fundraising by the American Journalism Project.
During the research phase, it became clear that while the volume of original news reporting has decreased across the state, some audiences — particularly Indiana’s Black and Hispanic communities as well as immigrant communities, Hoosiers with relatively low incomes, rural communities and small-town residents — have especially long been underserved by local news. Free Press Indiana will prioritize these overlooked and underserved communities, focusing on relevant news and information that reflects their perspectives. All at no cost to readers.
Another bit of good news comes in the area of civic literacy.
The Indiana Bar Foundation has been the leading force behind civics education for more than 20 years, under the leadership of the able Chuck Dunlap.
Chuck and the Bar Foundation are behind such school programs as We the People and Mock Trial. They’re the driving force behind the biennial Indiana Civic Health Index, which has become the definitive work on how Indiana ranks across a range of civics metrics. The 2019 edition of the Civic Health Index called for the creation of a task force to study ways to improve civics education. The task force was quickly formed, led by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.
The final report was turned into legislation, which created the first-ever sixth-grade civics requirement which is being rolled out next semester.
But there is more that we can do to improve Indiana’s civic health.
When non-voters are surveyed, the most common excuse is some version of “My vote doesn’t count; my vote doesn’t make a difference.” These are expressions of powerlessness, of disconnection, of apathy. It’s also a self-fulfilling cop-out.
So, our first priority is to ensure we pass on to those we love our love for this great country and our “walk barefoot over broken glass” attitude toward voting.
But here’s something to consider, when the excuse “my vote doesn’t matter” is supported by hard evidence, democracy is at risk. And here’s where we need to be open to structural reforms.
Here are some examples:
If you live in Indiana or in other states that aren’t battleground states, it’s hard to say my one vote is going to sway our electoral college votes one way or the other. So, channeling (the late U.S. Senator from Indiana) Birch Bayh, it’s time to do away with the electoral college and make every citizen’s vote in every state equal.
Gerrymandering inhibits voter participation, which is exactly what it’s intended to do. When the outcome of an election is pre-determined by the way the map is drawn, it causes non-voters to say, “Why bother?” Gerrymandering is wrong whether it’s done by Republicans in Indiana or Democrats in Illinois.
Also, Indiana could adopt some of the policies enacted in states that consistently rank in the top 10 for voting, like automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, heck, even longer hours on Election Day.
We could move our municipal elections to an even-numbered year, preferably a presidential year.
We could ask ourselves whether some of our offices should be elected at all, and if so, why are they partisan elections? We permit the County Commissioners to appoint the County Engineer, but we insist upon electing the County Surveyor in a partisan election? Would we get more candidates for judge, sheriff and prosecutor if we elected them on a non-partisan basis? Should the quality of the administration of justice — which at its core is based on impartiality —depend upon which political party wins the election?
And we need to stand up to those who are undermining the public’s confidence in the integrity of our elections
Please remember this challenge that has been attributed to both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan: When it comes to revitalizing democracy in Indiana by adding more journalism and more voters, the civic philanthropists of Indiana are going to make the difference.
Because … If not us, who? If not now, when?