“Your vote counts.”

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”

“Your vote matters.”

“Your ancestors shed their blood, sweat and tears, some even died for your right to vote. You honor them by voting.”

I’ve heard those words in one form or another throughout my lifetime. I’ve repeated those words time and again to those who tell me they don’t vote. I was raised to believe voting is your civic duty and it’s how you effect change.

I still believe that, but now I understand why people become disillusioned with voting and our political system. Once you see the behind-the-scenes machinations of parties and politicians, you realize it’s more complicated than the lessons we learned in high school government class. 

The cold, hard truth is sometimes your vote doesn’t matter — or that’s how it feels.

It’s not just voter suppression efforts such as gerrymandering where cracking and packing diminish voices and feed apathy, but it’s also gatekeeping by political parties that creates few choices, making it harder for voters to see why they should care.

Limiting choice

The recent death of Sen. Jean Breaux (D-Indianapolis) is an example of voters being left out of the political process. Before Breaux’s death, her challenger Chunia Graves was removed from the ballot because she couldn’t prove she voted in two Indiana Democratic primaries. Removing Graves would’ve meant an uncontested primary race and win for Breaux. Since there’s no challenger, Democratic leaders — not voters — will caucus to choose Breaux’s replacement.

The change in state law that raises the bar to prove party affiliation has made it more difficult for newcomers such as Graves to break into politics and challenge the incumbent. Before 2022, you only had to vote in one recent primary to prove your party affiliation. Now, a potential candidates’ two most recent primary votes have to match the party they wish to represent. If you don’t meet this requirement, county party chairs can allow you to run by issuing a waiver. “Can” being the operative word. Without clear guidelines on waiver issuance, the decision is left to the whims of party chairs in each county, creating a hodgepodge of reasons for approving or denying waivers. 

Thanks to this law, Marion County lost Democratic challengers in Senate District 32, Senate District 34 and House District 96.

Now, only five of the 23 Marion County legislative races in the upcoming primary are competitive. That’s it. Five. The incumbents in the other 18 districts will win no matter what. Let’s be real, races without competition are boring and uninspiring. Candidates bring out their A game when there’s competition. Our political system should encourage public service not discourage it by creating arbitrary obstacles.

The competition in the Republican primary for House District 90 is heartening. Although these candidates aren’t running against incumbent State Rep. Mike Speedy, as Autumn Carter is in her challenge to State Rep. John Bartlett for House District 95, there’s still energy around the race that voters elsewhere won’t experience.

The fact that many Democratic incumbents don’t have a challenger hasn’t gone unnoticed. What’s up with that? 

Voting record

Given our state’s abysmal voting record — we ranked 50th out of 51 states and Washington, D.C., in voter turnout and 40th for the number of voters registered in 2022, according to the 2023 Indiana Civic Health Index — it seems we should want to do more to get voters voting. 

Yes, we should always encourage — even admonish — Hoosiers to vote, but it will take more than catchy slogans and campaigns to get more people to do so. We can’t keep chastising those who don’t vote without acknowledging there’s a system that seems to only want a few people participating.

Don’t believe me? Look at the number of people who voted in Marion County’s last two primaries; it’s quite sad. In 2023, 12.74% or 79,156 people out of 621,384 registered voters cast a ballot. In 2022, 10.78% or 73,086 people voted in that primary. The number of registered voters was 678,067.

I surmise more people would vote if they felt they had something to vote for. However, we can’t sit idly by, waiting for that to happen. We still have to cast those ballots. It’s still the best way to be heard.

Early voting continues until May 6 at noon. Election Day is May 7. You can find out who’s on your ballot with this handy-dandy virtual ballot from The Indiana Citizen.

© Indiana Capital Chronicle, 2024 The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.