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  • Greg Zoeller, former Indiana attorney general, discusses the findings of the 2017 Indiana Civic Health Index on Friday at IPFW. (Courtesy Andrew Downs/IPFW)

Saturday, November 11, 2017 1:00 am

State's civic health promising, students told

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

Here is how Indiana compared with the rest of the nation for participation rates in selected community engagement activities during 2016:

Activity Percentage Rank
Eating dinner with family 92.7 3rd
Talking about politics 30.4 18th
Volunteering 28.7 22nd
Attending public meetings 8.1 29th
Election turnout 58.3 41st

Source: 2017 Indiana Civic Health Index

Former Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Friday at IPFW that he used to call democracy a participatory sport.

“You don't have a democratic system without participation,” Zoeller told students at the Liberal Arts Building.

The 2017 Indiana Civic Health Index shows that Hoosiers' participation has improved in recent years.

“Things are better,” said Randall Shepard, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court. “Indiana on most measures is a little higher than average” among all states.

Shepard and Zoeller led a classroom discussion of the Civic Health Index, which found that Indiana residents like to talk about politics – 18th-highest rate nationally – but don't follow through in voting booths. The state ranked 41st nationally in election turnout last year after finishing last in 2014.

The third edition of the index was produced by the Indiana Bar Foundation, the Indiana Supreme Court, Indiana University, IUPUI and the National Conference on Citizenship.

Shepard said he was struck by some areas of civic engagement where Hoosiers did rank high. One involved buying or boycotting products and services because of political or social views.

“I did it myself in the last month, but I can't remember what it was,” Shepard said. “I saw somebody's product, and I said, 'I don't want to do business with those guys,' and I moved down to buy somebody else's ketchup or coffee or something like that.”

An even higher ranking that impressed Shepard was Indiana's third place for family members who eat dinner together. Shared meals demonstrate social connectivity, according to the Civic Health Index.

“My view of it is that the family unit, though evolving, is still a very basic part of the support structure for people who grow up and have successful lives on their own,” he said.

And Shepard noted that Indiana ranked fairly high – 19th nationally – in voter turnout for local elections.

IPFW audience member Irene Paxia, executive director of the nonprofit Amani Family Services, wondered whether the index should widen its measures of civic participation. Paxia said several of her friends who “are otherwise engaged in the community” chose not to vote in last year's presidential election.

“I think it's because the candidates they were looking at didn't speak to them, or they felt (the candidates) were not in touch with what they are about,” Paxia said.

The classroom audience included military veterans Katie MacDonald and Mark Eckert.

“It confounds us that the greatest gift that this country's ever given us, which is the ability to vote, people don't take advantage of,” MacDonald said. “It just kind of blows our minds away.”

While answering an audience member's question about whether public officials encourage political participation by their constituents, Zoeller disputed any notion that the Republican Party leaders have tried to deter voting by people who tend to support Democratic candidates.

“I've never seen it true that the Republicans would like to depress the vote,” he said. “So this idea that we make it harder to vote, are trying to suppress minority voting or voting among less educated and younger (people), I never saw that. I think that is a conspiracy theory.”

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional an Indiana law requiring voters to present photo identification at polling places. The Indiana Democratic Party contended the law was a barrier to voting by minorities, low-income people and older people, constituencies less likely to carry photo ID cards.

Other findings of the Civic Health Index included:

• Hoosiers are more likely than other Americans to belong to civic and service organizations and attend church, but Indiana ranks 44th nationally in participation in school, neighborhood and community associations.

• Political involvement is highest in Indiana among suburban residents.

• Rates of civic participation rise as educational attainment and household income increase.

• Hoosiers in the 35-44 age group tend to have the most confidence in corporations, the media and public schools.

bfrancisco@jg.net