Two distressing news items out of state government last week speak volumes about how much – or how little – your vote matters.
First, from the secretary of state, we got the particulars on our modern-record-low turnout in the Nov. 4 election: Thirty percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots, compared to 39 percent in 2002, the last election without gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races. Marion County posted 25 percent, about the same as the last two mayoral elections. (Greg Ballard – the 13-percent solution.)
Next, we learned courtesy of the resolute Tom LoBianco at the Associated Press that the state’s investigation of ousted state schools chief Tony Bennett turned up plenty of evidence to charge him with federal fraud for using his office as a weapon in his unsuccessful 2012 election campaign against Glenda Ritz.
The state Inspector General kept that information from the public; LoBianco ferreted it out. Moreover, the IG hadn’t investigated in the first place until LoBianco exposed Bennett’s sleazy tactics.
Having disposed of this inconvenient business by finding Bennett guilty of minor violations and levying a $5,000 fine, the IG has moved on. So have the rest of Bennett’s fellow Republicans in power; including his holdover State Board of Education and Gov. Mike Pence’s bogus education office, created to oppose the Department of Education which Ritz was overwhelmingly elected to lead. (Pence made the surprise announcement Thursday he plans to dissolve that agency because of the controversy surrounding it.)
So, what shall we conclude? That you missed an opportunity and skipped an obligation last month by not going to the polls and earning one of those “I Count, I Voted” stickers? Or that you did your duty in 2012 by handing Glenda Ritz one of the widest victory margins of any state office-holder, and the guys in the Statehouse decided your vote didn’t count after all?
Either way, the lesson is clear: Politicians are perfectly happy to claim a mandate when 85 percent of the voting public did not choose them, and politicians will do what their elite supporters dictate regardless of what the people “decide” at the polls.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky agrarian writer and maverick social critic, put it timelessly in an essay published more than 40 years ago:
“The time is past when it was enough merely to elect our officials. We will have to elect them and then go and watch them and keep our hands on them, the way the coal companies do.”
Coal companies haven’t gotten any less hands-on. The notorious Koch brothers owe their fortune to the problematic fossil fuel, and that industry’s hold on Indiana politicians is reflected in Pence’s adamantine opposition to the federal government’s latest effort to alleviate the poisonous impact of coal burning on our air, water, soil, children and fetuses.
So citizens, like the coal companies and the anti-Ritz forces that wish to privatize our schools for profit, must lobby. And picket. And write letters to the editor. And raise hell. And perhaps vote.
I say perhaps because some of the most politically engaged people in America see no point in choosing between establishment alternatives, and instead work to bring pressure on whoever winds up in office. When fellow progressives lecture them about shirking their responsibility, they can point to the travails of a history-making president and a triumphant Indiana schoolteacher and reply that citizenship is a much bigger job than merely voting.
Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and Sky Blue Window and the author “Indiana Out Loud.”