Trying to improve turnout in Indiana’s partisan primary elections misses the point
by Bill Moreau
If you voted in the May 3rd Indiana primary elections, you participated in a taxpayer-funded process that underwrites the parties’ cost of nominating their candidates. And the two major parties have created a system in which only the most active partisans are urged to vote on primary day.
According to the Secretary of State’s data, Indiana’s recent primaries attracted a whopping 14% of registered voters to the polls. Benton and Parke counties finished first with 33%. Perry County finished last at 6%. In some Tippecanoe County “student precincts,” the turnout was 1%.
The system works perfectly for the parties: 86% of registered voters—4,074,183 presumably far less partisan Hoosiers—stayed home on May 3 and thereby checked out on selecting the November candidates, many of whom will run unopposed in gerrymandered districts.
If you were among the 664,633 Hoosiers who did vote, you might have been asked—depending on your county–to choose your party’s nominee for County Coroner or Surveyor, without knowing whether the candidate knows how to handle a dead body or operate a theodolite (look it up; I had to).
You might have been asked to select a nominee for County Assessor, Auditor, Recorder or Treasurer, as though there’s a Republican versus Democratic way to recalculate home values, keep the county’s books, file real estate documents or collect property taxes.
And while we’re at it, should there really be a Republican versus Democratic way to arrest and jail citizens, prosecute wrongdoers, adjudicate criminal and civil cases or administer elections? After all, we’ve entrusted the control of our public schools to school boards whose members we choose in nonpartisan elections. Indeed, a misguided attempt to make school board elections partisan was killed, thankfully, by the General Assembly.
We propose a debate that asks two important questions:
- Are there public offices that should be appointed rather than elected? For example, we trust the County Commissioners to appoint the county engineer but not the surveyor?
- For the remaining county offices we agree should be elected, why must it be a contest between a Democrat and a Republican? For those offices, how about an open, nonpartisan primary in May followed by an election between the top two vote-getters in November?
And if we have that discussion, how about moving municipal elections to an even-numbered year, preferably a presidential election year?
Yes, for some offices the Indiana Constitution would need to be amended, but if you’re truly concerned about improving Indiana’s civic health it still begs the real question: What can we do to attract the best-qualified Hoosiers to seek public office–including appointing some that are currently elected—through a process that attracts the largest number of voters?
Our nonpartisan nonprofit, the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, exists to address our state’s civic health crisis. Our work is motivated by the biennial Indiana Civic Health Index, which reports us ranking 46th, 43rd, 41st and 47th for turnout over the last four statewide general elections.
We spent considerable time and resources in 2020 encouraging voter registration, education and turnout in the November general election. This year, we’ll soon be launching the best voter guide Indiana’s ever seen.
But we won’t waste any energy trying to improve turnout in Indiana’s primaries. The two parties have made it a lost cause that doesn’t ask the right questions.
Bill Moreau is president of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation
and publisher of its online platform The Indiana Citizen www.indianacitizen.org