As a voter strolled out of the VFW 857 center Tuesday afternoon, he smiled at a woman making her way into the polling place and offered a comment he meant to be upbeat.
"You’re in luck – there’s no line!" he said.
The woman smiled back. "That’s good!" she said. Then she paused. "No – I mean, that’s bad."
How right she was.
In Allen County, voter turnout was a shameful 9.82 percent of registered voters. Other recent primaries were low – but this one was lower.
And just because it’s happened before doesn’t mean we should shrug it off. Small, vocal and organized groups can exercise outsized power, especially in primaries. And if citizens aren’t participating in elections, how and when will they support and participate in efforts toward the common good?
Apathy is the toughest opponent of all. If the problem is simply public indifference to or ignorance, no one who does care may be able to do much about it.
But there are possible solutions that haven’t yet been seriously considered. Voting hours could be extended. Voter registration could be made far easier without encouraging fraud. Voters could be allowed to vote in primaries without declaring and leaving a record of their party choice before entering the voting booth.
We could look harder for best practices and best results.
Turnout in Huntington County, for instance, was 21.99 percent – more than twice as high as Allen County’s, even though the election slates at issue were similar. (Participation was actually even higher during the last Huntington municipal primary election, when there were more contested races.)
In this election, Huntington Countians were able to vote at any of four voter centers, instead of having to go to a particular precinct polling place. Voter centers alone don’t guarantee high turnout, as Huntington County Clerk Kittie Keiffer noted. Noble County began using them last year, and its participation in this year’s primary was 7 percent, even lower than Allen’s.
But Keiffer said she believes the change was well received in Huntington County because officials made a massive effort to promote the centers. The county used newspapers, TV, Internet, postcards and word of mouth to get the word out before Tuesday’s primary. "I think that had a lot to do with it," Keiffer said.
Though Keiffer said her office is still analyzing Tuesday’s results, she pointed to two other factors that may have added to Huntington County participation. One was a successful campaign to promote early voting by making it available not just at the clerk’s office but at two of the voter centers on selected days.
The other was a system that allows voters to check in at the centers using a digital tablet rather than waiting for poll workers to page through the books to find their names. "It’s a 35-second check-in," Keiffer said. Allen County is planning to switch to the electronic poll books as well, probably this year.
Despite the county’s changes and relative success in attracting voters Tuesday, it’s interesting that Keiffer heard remarks similar to those in the Facebook comments here about being required to announce a party when checking in.
"They didn’t want to walk into a vote center and declare their party," she said. "I don’t remember that many negative comments last time."
Of course, as Keiffer noted, that is what a primary is all about.
But that doesn’t mean Allen County and all of Indiana shouldn’t explore new ways of getting the job done.