Low voter turnout, unrequited love


Unrequited love is weird.

On one side you have the smitten one — somebody convinced their entire existence depends on the object of their affection.

But that object acts as if the smitten one hardly exists.

Something similar appears to have overtaken our civic life.

We’ve just had another election in Indiana. Maybe you noticed this, but there’s a good chance you missed it.

Marion County broke a record for low voter turnout. Less than a quarter of eligible voters, 22.60 percent, decided that Joe Hogsett should be Indianapolis’ next mayor. This continued what appears to be a downward trend.

In last year’s national election, Indiana achieved the dubious distinction of having America’s lowest voter turnout, with 30 percent.

In LaPorte County, where I live, turnout was abysmal: 18 percent. But this was called an improvement, since just over 13 percent voted in May’s primary.

Most people, it seems, couldn’t care less who gets elected to public office in these parts. It’s all the same to them.

This is a bitter pill for the state’s political class, including the news media. All of us are invested in the idea that the quality of life in our communities depends on the active participation of those communities’ citizens.

Yeah. You.

For people working in public service, this means anchoring what they do with policies backed by public support won through the election process.

And for journalists and other media types, it’s a living: It presumes an audience for our reporting and other assorted forms of, ahem, analysis and interpretation.

The media is also referred to as “the Fourth Estate,” an unofficial branch of government responsible, supposedly, for keeping an eye on politicians and informing the people about what their representatives are up to. This is why we have a First Amendment to our Constitution, promising freedom of speech and press. It protects the ability of journalists to get the word out about what’s really happening, so that everybody else can know what they’re voting for — or against.

But what if the people don’t care?

Before every election, the news media goes out of its way to encourage, nay implore, citizens to get out and vote. This is not just a right, we are told, it’s a duty, a chance to make a difference, or be counted, or have our voices heard. You know the drill.

But, increasingly, this importuning feels like it’s about the news media itself. It’s our way of trying to make all the time and energy we put into covering this stuff worthwhile. Or, put another way, to justify our existence.

It wasn’t that long ago that every newspaper had writers on staff to cover theater, visual art, music and dance. Most of these folks are gone now, their services no longer required for lack of sufficient eyeballs.

If hardly anyone votes, the same thing could eventually happen to the Fourth Estate. It’s no wonder so much of our politics has devolved into entertainment coverage — poll numbers, strategizing and gossip — it’s a desperate gesture for attention.

Unrequited love.


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