Why should I care? 

Voter apathy versus a healthy democracy

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Being the worst at something tends to motivate people to work for change. In the 2014 general election, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the country with only 28 percent of registered voters casting a ballot.

On November 3, Hoosiers will (hopefully) head to the polls to elect municipal leaders including mayors and city or town council representatives. In Marion County, the mayors of Indianapolis, Beech Grove, Lawrence and Southport will be chosen as well as city council seats in those municipalities. Town council seats will be up for grabs in Speedway, Cumberland, Homecroft and Warren Park.

Voter turnout in the 2011 municipal elections was, in a nutshell, pathetic. Only 13 percent of registered voters in Marion County participated in the re-election of Mayor Greg Ballard. In the May primary that year only 9 percent of Indy residents determined who the candidates would be in November. With this year's primary turnout coming in just over 7 percent, trends suggest as few as 11 percent of registered voters could select the next mayor of Indianapolis and seat a new city-county council.

Low voter turnout is not unique to Indianapolis or Indiana. States all over the country have been battling with how to get the general public more engaged in government and how to encourage folks to exercise their constitutional right. Voting trends are analyzed and surveyed by universities, advocacy groups and even the U.S. Census Bureau. The data looks at all sorts of variables including ethnicity, age, education, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, etc. The list goes on and on. Most of the data is geared toward voting trends in national elections. Determining how voters react in local elections is an even harder animal to wrestle.

The Journey Begins

In order to better understand why Indy residents don't vote, NUVO, in partnership with 90.1 WFYI, decided to find a few and ask.

The goal was simple — identify and find individuals who, based on our research, represented the typical resident who is registered to vote, but doesn't exercise his or her right.

Most registered non-voters are educated — most have college degrees or are currently in college. Socioeconomic levels range from poverty level to upper middle class. Ethnic groups — specifically African-Americans and Asian-Americans — may register to vote, but won't make it to the polls. And women tend to vote more than men.

Armed with this information we took to the streets and social media to find registered non-voters to ask the question: Why don't you vote?

Identifying registered non-voters and actually finding them, however, turned out to be harder than anticipated. In truth, finding someone willing to admit they don't vote as well as explain why proved to be a challenge. The founding fathers felt a society governed through democracy was the best way for this nation to develop and representatives elected by the people was the fairest way for their voices to be heard. History has illustrated through women's suffrage and the civil rights movement that voting is a right that is worth fighting for. It is also very personal and designed to be void of persecution through a secret balloting system. It's not surprising that people weren't jumping at the chance to share why they choose to vote or not to vote.

But with some perseverance, we found two people.

Meet Sara and Toran, a teacher and a college student who don't vote, are willing to talk about why and are willing to learn more.

Non-voter profile: Sara Hill

Non-voter profile: Toran Fiene

Electing Our Future

The Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy (CCL) aims to be proactive on this front. Instead of trying to determine why people don't vote in local elections, the CCL plans a series of events to inform voters on why local elections matter.

In partnership with numerous civic organizations including the League of Women Voters, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, The Indianapolis Urban League and the Indianapolis Public Library, three forums between now and Election Day will aim to turn apathetic voters into informed voters.

"Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government In Order to Cast an Informed Vote" is the title of the forum series.

"Local government really has the most direct effect on someone's day-to-day life," says CCL faculty member Sheila Suess Kennedy.

However understanding that effect and from where it originates isn't well known. Kennedy and the members of the Electing our Future committee hope the upcoming forum series will change that. All of the forums will be held at the downtown branch of the Indianapolis Public Library from 6 – 8 p.m. The forums are designed to be non-partisan — as Kennedy says, "No politics, no spin, just basic information that will help you evaluate the priorities and capacities of the candidates for mayor and council who are asking for your vote."

Mon, Sept. 21 How does Indianapolis Work? The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce will take responsibility for this initial presentation, and will include a brief description of where we are in the federal/state/local scheme of things; a discussion of home rule/state authority; and a description of city structure: mayor, council, departments, municipal corporations and what each does. The forum will explain how Unigov makes Indianapolis different from other cities, and will describe how we finance city services.

Tues, Oct. 6 What are the issues we face? The Center for Civic Literacy and the League of Women Voters will be lead partners for this forum. How does Indianapolis deal with change? With diversity? What do citizens need to know to make informed decisions on quality of life issues: environmental, public health, education, transportation, arts and culture, civic life? How do we identify and allocate dwindling resources—with resources broadly defined to include civic, corporate and religious organizations and nonprofits, sources of expertise, & civic energy.

Tues, Oct. 20 What do we want Indianapolis to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now? If we want a city that is healthy, wealthy & wise, how do we get there? The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee will share insights from its Indy 2020 project.

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Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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