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1/13/2019 3:35:00 PM
COMMENTARY: Community effort could reverse decline in Terre Haute city election turnouts

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

A vote signifies care. The future of a city, the state or the nation motivates a person to get to a polling place, wait in line and cast a ballot.

The need for a caring soul isn't limited to individuals. Governing officials should encourage first-time voters and ease, not complicate, newcomers' entry into the democratic process.

The turnout for this year's Terre Haute municipal election on Nov. 5 will send a signal to the rest of the world about the city's concern for its future. A reversal of declining turnouts in Terre Haute city elections would show the community's determination to progress. A repeat of the last municipal election turnout, or an even smaller assemblage, would tarnish the ongoing hard work of so many residents to improve this place. 

The 2015 election drew the smallest number of voters for a Terre Haute mayoral race since at least 1917 and probably ever, considering that only men could vote before 1920. Just 8,255 people cast ballots in the race that gave Mayor Duke Bennett a 315-vote margin of victory over former county councilman Mark Bird and a third term, four years ago. Even in 1995, when Jim Jenkins ran for mayor unopposed, more Hauteans voted (8,677).

It wasn't the weather. Blue filled the sky and temperatures topped 70 degrees on Nov. 3, 2015.

It wasn't a lack of issues. The city faced financial crisis with a mounting general fund deficit.

Early voting didn't help. Only 2,849 people took advantage of that program in '15.

Political scientists around the country often cite the need for more dynamic candidates as one way to boost voter turnouts. Yet, Hauteans flowed into the voting booths in greater numbers in past elections when neither candidate fit that description.

The nasty, eye-poking climate of 21st-century politics — when anyone from one party is automatically a demon to the other — has alienated many from voting. Still, historians can recount endless cases of underhanded, mean tactics and smears from bygone campaigns long before Twitter rants and Facebook conspiracy theories were even possible. It's not new, just harder to avoid.

So, the community has to decide how to bring more of its citizens into the process. A decision last week by the Vigo County Election Board to leave the Indiana State University campus vote center off the list of vote centers for this year's municipal primary and election won't help increase turnout. More than 500 people waited in line for hours to cast ballots — many for the first time in their lives — on three voting machines in last November's midterm election. One student voting that day, 21-year-old Markis Smiley, explained his conservative views and then added, "I changed my [residency] status from Rochester to Terre Haute to become more involved in the community.”

Citywide, the pool of residents eligible to vote is large. Approximately 45,000 Hauteans are 18 or older and aren't incarcerated on a felony conviction. As of last week, 38,132 of those folks were registered to vote, according to the county voter registration office. The remaining 7,000 have until April 8 to register for the upcoming May 7 city primary, or Oct. 7 for the November municipal election.

Being registered and actually voting are two different things, though. The number of people who do both will affect the election's outcome.

Three mayoral candidates have already emerged. The official filing date for municipal elected offices was Wednesday, but Republican incumbent Duke Bennett, independent former city engineer Pat Goodwin and Democratic city councilman Karrum Nasser announced earlier their candidacies for mayor. What should they expect in terms of turnout?

Every Indiana city is different, of course, as are the fields of candidates from one election to the next. That said, turnouts for municipal elections in the Hoosier state have declined steadily for more than a decade, dropping from 695,020 statewide in 2007 to 670,514 in 2011 and 559,517 in 2015, according to Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne.

"If Indiana's population was decreasing, you could make the argument that this is not an indicator of declining turnout," Downs said last week, "but Indiana's population is not shrinking."

Downs offered some optimism. Fifty-one percent of registered voters statewide participated in last November's midterm election, compared to a national-low of 30 percent in the previous midterm, 2014. Vigo County saw an increase, too, with 44.2 percent of registered voters turning out in November, a jump from 28.5 percent in 2014. Of the 32,171 county residents voting last fall, 14,830 were also city residents. 

That doesn't necessarily mean the same number will participate in this year's city elections, when Donald Trump's shadow over Congress won't be a drawing card. Candidates and issues must fill that void in the public's curiosity for local politics. "Exciting campaigns are essential to good turnout," Downs said.

The three Terre Haute mayoral candidates anticipate stronger numbers at the polls this year. "I'm confident turnout will be higher than 2015," Nasser said. "As a challenger, it is always beneficial to have a higher turnout. The rule of thumb is, the higher the turnout the worse it is for the incumbent." Perhaps, but this is a three-way race. Two challengers will be competing for votes, along with a sitting mayor with an established base.

Goodwin believes turnout "will be much higher than 2015. People seem to be more engaged in the political process than they were four years ago." Indeed, grassroots citizen groups concerned about the county jail and school corporation's legal troubles formed and led some members to seek public office in 2018 instead of succumbing to disillusionment.

"My hope is that turnout will exceed 12,000," Goodwin added. "Strong turnouts in local elections are essential to high-functioning, responsive government. Elected officials need to be reminded that voters are paying attention. I think we saw that play out in last fall's local races." Turnout has only topped 12,000 once in a Terre Haute city election since 1991. That was 2007, when Bennett narrowly unseated incumbent Kevin Burke.

Bennett sees the record-low 2015 turnout as an aberration. "I would expect a typical election turnout this year," he said. "Municipal elections don't normally draw a huge number of voters, but 2015 was clearly abnormal.

"My hope is that turnout would be high," the mayor continued, "because people should participate in the election process every chance they get." That's been true for every Terre Haute election since the city formed, and yet the turnouts have declined. A community-wide push could stop the slide.

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