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From the Indianapolis Recorder: Gerrymandering possible cause of depressed voter turnout

The following article, which appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder on Sept. 9, 2021, was written by Recorder reporters Tyler Fenwick and Breanna Cooper. It is reprinted with permission.

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For the past 20 years, Rev. Antonio Alexander of Purpose of Life Ministries has advocated for affordable housing and better treatment of those reentering the community after stints in prison. Now, his focus is on fairer elections.

Alexander was inspired to act after realizing how gerrymandered Indiana is. Gerrymandering, the political process of manipulating voting districts to gain an advantage or put the opposing political party at a disadvantage, is evident in district maps of the state. A recent study from George Washington University found Indiana to be more gerrymandered than 95% of the country. Beyond giving the Republican Party, in this instance, an advantage in local elections, Alexander said it also impacts voter turnout.

“Many people give up when they feel like their voice doesn’t matter,” Alexander said. “If you feel like you’re not being represented and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s easy to see why someone wouldn’t want to be involved in the process. But you have to be because all of it affects you.”

Indiana lawmakers are about to come back to the Statehouse to draw new congressional and state district maps, a process based on results of the once-per-decade census, which was delayed in 2020 because of the pandemic.

House Republicans will unveil proposed congressional and Indiana House maps Sept. 14. The House Elections Committee will convene Sept. 15 and 16 for hearings to get public feedback on the two map drafts. Senate Republicans will go through the same process starting Sept. 21. Times have not been announced. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb will have to sign the maps into law.

There are few rules in state law and the Constitution about how to draw districts, meaning lawmakers have been allowed to use a lot of discretion. Most states, including Indiana, leave the responsibility of drawing congressional and state district maps to the legislature. Some states have redistricting commissions for one or both maps.

Experts don’t know the exact effect gerrymandering has on voter turnout, but voting rights advocates suspect it has a substantial impact.

Researchers writing for the journal Judicial Notebook in 2018 said social pressure — wanting to gain praise or avoid punishment — increases voter turnout.

“It is reasonable to argue, then, that if voters feel they have already been punished or that punishment is a likely outcome, social pressure to vote may dissipate and turnout may decrease,” they wrote.

Julia Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan group that advocates for transparency in government, said gerrymandering is likely the biggest factor in Indiana’s low voter turnout. The state’s turnout of 61.4% in the 2020 general election ranked 41st in the country, and that was an especially high turnout for Indiana compared to past presidential election years.

A big part of the problem, according to Vaughn, is many races aren’t competitive, meaning there’s only one major-party candidate in the general election or a district is so heavily slanted the opposing party doesn’t put up much of a fight.

“When they already know weeks before Election Day who the winner is going to be, people are much less motivated,” she said.

Common Cause Indiana is a founder of the All IN for Democracy coalition working to change redistricting. The organization also helped form the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, which held public hearings, sent a report to state lawmakers earlier this year and encouraged everyday people to draw maps they considered fair.

Brandon Evans, co-founder of HOPE (Hoosiers Organized People Energized), a nonpartisan group that works to increase voter turnout, said one of the most common answers from statewide surveys and interviews about Indiana’s low voter turnout was apathy. People don’t feel like their vote really counts.

The best way to get higher voter turnout, he said, is to make races more competitive. Candidates for office would likely spend more money on their campaigns and take more time to talk to voters if they felt pressure to win votes.

Evans said the process Indiana has now — which he compared to a baseball team making up the rules for a game when the umpires don’t show up — discourages that.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.