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Indiana falls nearer to bottom of voter turnout rankings, report finds

A study of voting behavior and civic participation published on Wednesday found that Indiana placed second to last among American states for voter turnout in 2022, even as voter registration and participation in the Hoosier State improved over previous years.

The fifth biennial Indiana Civic Health Index (INCHI) was a produced by a partnership that included Indiana University Northwest, the Indiana Bar Foundation and the Indiana Civics Coalition.

Though the Hoosier state has consistently ranked among the 10 worst states for voter turnout in midterm years since 2010, when it ranked 48th, the most recent midterm election saw it drop even further behind, outperforming only West Virginia. With the lowest overall 2022 voting rate of 41.9%, Indiana fell well short of the national voting rate of 52.2 %. Indiana ranked 36th in voting turnout during the 2012 presidential election but fell to 46th in 2020.

To explain these gloomy statistic, the study’s authors point to commonly cited factors: a dearth of competitive elections and election policies that limit turnout.

The report’s authors stressed that there is good news as well; the study noted that some other indicators of civic health, including the percentage of Hoosiers who reported getting in touch with public officials, donating to political organizations, or discussing politics with family and neighbors, increased over previous years.

Ellen Szarleta, director of Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence and the study’s primary author, noted that despite the damage done to Hoosiers’ social networks by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated declines in civic health indicators from 2020 to 2022, “we still find ourselves trending in a positive direction on civic awareness and civic action.”

Though the study notes a list of policies employed by the states with the highest voter turnout that are absent in Indiana — including automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, unrestricted absentee voting and extended election day voting hours — using the INCHI to advocate for those policies in the Hoosier state right now would amount a “waste of time,” Bill Moreau, founder and president of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, told the Post-Tribune.

The GOP-dominated Indiana state legislature has shown little interest in enacting any of those reforms, and has taken steps to restrict ballot access in recent years. Last year, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a Republican-authored bill adding a requirement that voters include a form of ID when submitting an absentee ballot application. The law, which went into effect in July, was framed by Republicans as a common-sense election security measure but was criticized by voting rights advocates who see it as a barrier to broader participation.

“I’m gonna sound really fatalistic here, but it’s like going through the stages of grief,” Moreau said. “You have to at one point reach sort of a state of acceptance, right?”

Rather than reforms to election policy, the study focuses on civic education and engagement, an area where advocates have recently seen significant victories. In 2021, prompted in part by a recommendation made by an earlier version of the INCHI, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill requiring Indiana middle schools to teach one semester of civics to sixth graders. The current 2023-2024 school year is the first since the legislation took effect.

“We’ve made a difference in the process,” Szarleta said. “The focus is really on that registration piece, knowing that there’s still policy level actions that need to take place to move that needle.”

To boost voter registration and turnout for this year’s elections, the INCHI calls for “an all-out effort in 2024 to register every eligible Hoosier, with special emphasis on our youngest citizens.”

“We propose setting the goal of registering every willing, eligible high school senior in the spring and fall semesters of 2024, thereby reaching the classes of 2024 and 2025,” the authors write. “INCHI continues to highlight Indiana’s registration and turnout rankings with the hope that the information will spur Hoosier policymakers, the political parties, and candidates to invest in increased voter registration, access to candidate information, and higher turnout.”

adalton@chicagotribune.com