By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

January 25, 2024

The latest assessment of Indiana’s civic health shows the state is continuing to suffer from persistent voter apathy with low numbers of Hoosiers registering to vote and casting a ballot.

According to the 2023 Indiana Civic Health Index, released Wednesday, the state has a “significant challenge” of getting eligible voters to participate in the election process. Voter turnout in Indiana has been consistently below the national average for decades and it regularly ranks in the bottom half of all states for voter registration.

In the 2022 midterm elections, only 41.9% of Hoosier voters went to the polls, which is more than 10 percentage points below the national average of 52.2%. Even when turnout spiked in the 2020 presidential election, when 61.9% of eligible Hoosiers voted – the highest turnout for a presidential election since 1994 – Indiana still fell short of the national average of 66.8%.

The Indiana Bar Foundation and the Indiana Civics Coalition curated the report. Along with compiling and examining the new data from the 2022 election cycle, the bar foundation and the coalition based their findings on the National Conference of Citizenship’s analysis of the U.S. Census Current Population Survey data.

Partnering organizations who helped produce the 2023 index are Indiana University Northwest, The Center of Representative Government at Indiana University, the Indiana Civics Coalition, the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation Inc. (parent of The Indiana Citizen), Church Church Hittle and Antrim, and the National Conference on Citizenship.

As Charles Dunlap, president and CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, explained, all the survey partners are hopeful Indiana can improve its civic health but progress will not happen quickly.

“This is moving a big ship,” Dunlap said. “This is not going to be an overnight thing. This is a lot of people putting their shoulder to the wheel on this and that’s how we think effective change can be made.”

The 2023 civic health index is the sixth edition to be published since the first one, which was championed by former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton and retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, came out in 2011.

Partners on the civic health index project – former Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller; Ellen Szarleta, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence at Indiana University Northwest; and Bill Moreau, co-founder of The Indiana Citizen Education Foundation – joined Dunlap on Jan. 24 to discuss the findings of the latest index and recommend ways to improve.

The release of the 2023 index was covered by Fox 59 News, the Post-Tribune, WFYI, the Indiana Lawyer, and Northwest Indiana Business Magazine. Also, the index was the subject of columns in and the Terre Haute Tribune Star, and discussed on Indiana Week in Review.

“I’m so optimistic about his report regardless of what it might say to others,” Zoeller said. “It’s not so much a metric on who we are as a citizenry but so much as a challenge that we rise to the occasion.”

New civics classes bode well for future

Civic health is comprised of more than just voter participation, Szarleta said. Civic awareness, which includes knowledge about democracy and how to engage in the democratic process, and social connectedness to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers are also key indicators of civic health.

Improving Indiana’s civic health, she said, will have a broad impact by bolstering economic resilience, workforce development, and access to opportunities as well as lowering crime rates.

“When we make choices about how to civically participate, it’s not just that we’re going to vote or connecting to one another, but we’re actually affecting our lives on a more general level,” Szarleta said.

While voter participation is a concern, Dunlap pointed out some areas where Indiana’s civic health are “extremely strong.”

Namely, he highlighted the new state requirement that all sixth graders take a full semester of civics instruction, making Indiana just one of eight states that mandate at least a semester of civics education at the middle school level. Also, the bar foundation is planning to expand its Indiana Kids Election program to bring to elementary, middle and high school students the experience of voting in a mock election.

The civics class was born from the 2019 civic health index. A recommendation for the class led to the creation of a civic education task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, which produced a report that became the basis for the legislation that established the sixth grade requirement.

Based on research showing a link between civic knowledge and civic health, Szarleta said the class will provide a long-term benefit. The new civics class and other civic-related activities will help Indiana students develop their critical-thinking skills, so they are more engaged in their communities and more likely to participate in elections, she said.

Since the new civics class and mock elections are just now getting started, Szarleta noted the full benefit  of this education might not be seen for another 10 years when the current crop of sixth graders reach voting age. However, she said, “You are going to have more positive outcomes in terms of future civic activities.”

Registration first, then voting

Moreau said as the emphasis on civics education is celebrated, Hoosiers should also be thinking about what comes next. Students will be gaining an understanding of how democracy works and they should also be shown the way to use that knowledge.

“What is the most obvious manifestation of that engagement for an 18-year-old?” Moreau asked. “It’s first registering and then voting.”

The 2023 index calls for increasing voter registration efforts in 2024. Previously, the civic health index had highlighted election administration policy choices made by states with the highest turnout rates, such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, unrestricted absentee voting and keeping the polls open longer than 12 hours on Election Day.

None of those recommendations have been enacted by the Indiana General Assembly and impediments remain in Indiana’s voting system, Moreau said. But, he pointed out that more than 3 million Hoosiers figured out how to navigate the system and vote in 2020.

Consequently, he believes the voter turnout in Indiana can climb if more eligible voters are registered. A prime target for registration efforts, he said, will be the estimated 160,000 high school juniors and seniors who will be eligible to vote this year.

Moreau pointed to social science studies that found upwards of 80% of first time registrants and new registrants vote.

“They’ve figured out how to take step one and they take step two very seriously,” Moreau said about registering and voting. “In fact, I’ve seen some research that indicates that first-time voters are among the best-informed voters when they go into the voting booth.”

Zoeller agreed about the potential that newly registered voters hold, because they will likely show up at the polls and they might consider the candidates more carefully rather than just voting for the party.

When he was campaigning door to door, Zoeller said, he made an extra effort to meet with the voters who had just registered. “They’re up for grabs and you’ve got to argue your case.”

Participation strengthens democracy

An influx of voters is need for the health of democracy, Moreau said, but, currently, “Hoosiers are staying home.”

Szarleta said Hoosiers are staying home more, in general.

The 2023 index indicated Indiana residents preferred online interactions to in-person connections. In 2022, slightly more Hoosiers posted their views on social political issues on the internet than in 2020. At the same time, Hoosiers spent fewer hours volunteering, socializing with neighbors, and attending public meetings.

Szarleta did not draw any conclusions about social connectedness from the stats. She noted that over the 12 years of collecting data for the indexes, Indiana has posted mixed results on civic engagement but longer term trends have not been spotted.

The American home still has an important place in democracy, Zoeller said. Parents can pass along the traditions of civic participation to their children through discussions at the dinner table or by taking them to the polls on Election Day so they can see what voting looks like.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us,” Zoeller said, “to do more regardless of what the metrics or the statistics say because we believe in representative democracy and recognize the value and the importance of engagement in civic health.”

(This article has been updated to provide a listing of the news outlets that covered the release of the 2023 Indiana Civic Health Index.)

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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