By Karen T. Braeckel
HSPA Foundation

Last week two events delivered a big wake-up call for me.

While we won’t vote in Indiana until May in the presidential primary, the 2016 election season shifted into high gear while my mind wandered elsewhere.

The two-tiered Republican presidential debate provided evidence citizens still chase the American Dream – so many candidates seeking the top position in the land that they would not fit on one stage.

Several weeks earlier, Steve Key and I received hand-signed letters from former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton asking us to attend a meeting on civic engagement – and specifically voting.

I will leave the debate for others to dissect.

But during the second event, the moderator asked me if newspapers still see covering elections as their responsibility. (Really?!)

You may recall in 2011 the HSPA Foundation helped sponsor the Indiana Civic Health Index that measured among other things voter participation.

In that report Indiana ranked 43rd in the percentage of voting-age adults registered to vote in 2010 (61.2 percent) and 48th in voter turnout (39.4 percent).

Pretty pathetic.

The new Civic Health Index released this year does not paint a brighter picture.

In the 2014 midterm election, Indiana ranked dead last in voter participation (27.8 percent). The national average offered nothing to write home about either (35.9 percent).

The 2015 Civic Health Index reports that in the 2012 presidential election, Indiana ranked 38th in turnout among eligible citizens (59.3 percent with a national average of 61.8 percent).

The same year the state ranked 37th among all states in the rate of citizens registered to vote (69.2 percent).

Indiana fairs better in presidential election years at least.

In response to these figures, Hamilton pulled together a group of about 20 to attempt to move from the evaluation stage of the index to action.

Beth White, the former Marion County clerk who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in our last election, moderated the session. She called on the former representative for opening remarks.

Regardless of your party affiliation, you probably classify Hamilton as a statesman.

In this meeting he lived up to that reputation. He understands the need for nonpartisan reform.

He began by listing the excuses he hears for not voting:

• I’m too busy – the most common.

• I’m disillusioned with government.

• My vote doesn’t count.

• Money plays such a role, I don’t want to be involved.

Then he revealed his list of problems in Indiana:

• Early poll closure.

• Inconvenient polling locations.

• Longest period of all states between registration deadline and election day (29 days).

And finally he gave his recommendations:

• Develop a nonpartisan way to reform the process.

• Address access and integrity of the ballot.

• Make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. He suggested lower barriers and tighter controls on voting. He says it is not unreasonable to check identities.

• Modernize the voting system, and make sure someone manages it.

Hamilton believes in voter IDs to make sure people actually are who they say they are. If done properly voter identification needs two elements:

• An identification card (with free ones available).

• An aggressive effort to find and encourage voters.

The group discussed numerous points, but my ears perked up when a radio personality in Indianapolis began talking about the role of newspapers in elections.

He said traditional daily newspapers used to drive elections, and now there seems to be no sense of urgency.

White said she would put me on the spot and asked if newspapers still see covering elections as a responsibility.

(Mind you, Steve wasn’t there because he attended the Newspaper Association Managers conference last week. He could have spewed out language to satisfy the various politicians and academics in the room. I felt his presence in my five-second prep period.)

I said newspapers consider their role to be the watchdog of government. Covering elections falls under that responsibility.

I told the group about the get-out-the vote advertising campaign we created in 2012 to try to make a difference.

But, I reminded them, advertising about voting in the newspaper equates to preaching to the choir. A variety of data shows newspaper readers vote.

As we enter this upcoming presidential election season in earnest, Steve and I will discuss Indiana’s low voter turnout with the HSPA and Foundation boards to determine the extent of our involvement.

A healthy democracy requires an engaged citizenry – and newspapers can play a motivational role.

Ultimately we would like to see the polling places as crowded as the Republican presidential debate.

Please stay tuned.

Karen T. Braeckel is director of the HSPA Foundation.