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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 10:17 am

RFRA reflects necessity of election participation

 Registered to vote? Good job.

Planning to exercise your vote this year? Even better. Indiana needs voters, not just registered voters.

A link between Indiana’s embarrassing religious freedom fracas and its lowest-in-the-nation voter turnout last November is tough to miss. There’s no doubt that, when they voted for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, some of the 103 Indiana lawmakers who supported Senate Bill 101 were thinking about former state representatives Kathy Heuer and Rebecca Kubacki. Both were effective legislators with conservative voting records, but because they voted to remove a provision that would have banned recognition of same-sex civil unions in a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, they were targeted by social conservatives and lost primary election challenges to first-time candidates. 

"Representative Kubacki, and Representative Heuer found out the hard way what happens when you trade in your principles and listen to the Indianapolis lobbyists," wrote tea-party sympathizer Monica Boyer on her blog after the two were defeated.

That message, combined with 27.8â percent turnout in November, surely convinced some GOP legislators to support the divisive religious freedom bill, which has been a top priority for the far right for the past year. Why risk a primary challenge if those who support gay rights don’t bother to vote?

No legislative races are on the ballot this year, but municipal offices are good training ground for the Statehouse. Elected officials who have served as mayor, school trustee, city council member or township board member know the effects their policies can have on their constituents. They’re more likely to consider how a bill will affect someone on Main Street and how it will reflect on a community or the state.

A robust turnout in May and November will signal heightened awareness and interest to all officeholders, not just those involved in this year’s city and town elections. It won’t be difficult to improve on 2011 election results: Fewer than 13 percent of Allen County voters participated in the primary election; 26.2 percent in the November general election.

The midterm election results, however, show just how disengaged Hoosier voters have become. A new report from Nonprofit VOTE, a national advocacy group partnering with U.S. nonprofit agencies to help the people they serve participate and vote, includes Indiana among the five states with "consistently low midterm turnout." The others are New York, Texas, West Virginia and Mississippi, according to the report, "America Goes to the Polls 2014."

The report suggests that states with longer registration deadlines and more competitive races see greater voter participation, but Indiana isn’t likely to see its election rules relaxed or more competitive contests until Hoosiers show up to vote in greater numbers.

For residents who live in cities and towns, May 5 is a chance to get started.