IUN study finds Hoosiers doing many things right to promote civic engagement

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Bloomington, left, and former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard discuss the 2017 Indiana Civic Health Index during an Oct. 24 meeting with reporters on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers do better than most Americans on several key measures of civic health, though Indiana continues to lag woefully behind one on key area: voting.

The 2017 Indiana Civic Health Index, released last week by Indiana University Northwest and other research partners, offers a snapshot of the condition of Indiana's "civic fabric" while also identifying threads that are beginning to fray.

"Civic involvement does not simply happen," said Ellen Szarleta, study co-author and director of IUN's Center for Urban and Regional Excellence.

"It takes each generation to demonstrate and teach future generations what it is to be an active, engaged and enlightened citizen."

What Indiana gets right

The study found that Hoosiers continue to be joiners, with 40.2 percent of Indiana residents regularly participating in school, community, service, sports or religious groups — up 3.6 percent compared to 2011.

Statewide membership in civic, service and religious organizations was above the national average, and particularly popular among Hoosiers living in suburban and rural areas.

Urban Indiana residents participated most often in school and neighborhood associations.

Over the past six years, Hoosiers also have become more likely to talk about politics with friends or family members, work with their neighbors to fix or improve their communities and attend public meetings.

More than half the state's residents donated an amount greater than $25 to charity and nearly 1 in 3 Hoosiers said they volunteer at nonprofit organizations.

In addition, Indiana families are more connected than families elsewhere with 92.7 percent of Hoosiers reporting they frequently eat dinner with a member of their household.

Former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard said improving family connectedness from 17th to third-highest in the country is something for which Hoosiers should be proud.

"At a time when there's so much concern about the deterioration of the family, we take this to be a very good sign for Indiana," Shepard said.

Hoosiers also remain largely more confident than other Americans in corporations and the media, according to the Index.

However, they were slightly less confident in public schools, due to a sharp decline among urban residents who generally have numerous school choice options.

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Bloomington, said taking all of those findings together suggests that Indiana's civic health is "pretty good."

"Civic engagement is critically important to the advancement of the quality of life of Hoosiers," Hamilton said. "We believe that Indiana and America will be a stronger state and nation, with a brighter future, if we have robust civic engagement."

What Indiana needs to improve

At the same time, Shepard and Hamilton said they are troubled that Indiana ranked 41st in the nation for voter participation in last year's presidential contest, and dead last during the 2014 midterm elections when barely 1 in 4 Hoosiers bothered to cast a ballot.

"Indiana's record of turnout in midterm elections is not very good at all, and not getting any better," Shepard said.

They both were quick to observe who is voting, who is not and what that means for public policy outcomes.

The study found high income earners and more educated Hoosiers are significantly more likely to participate in elections, while less than half of those earning under $35,000 a year and just 23.1 percent of Hoosiers lacking a high school diploma voted last year.

Hamilton said to function effectively, a representative democracy needs participation by the broadest possible electorate so everyone feels they have ownership in the decisions being made by their government.

"There are a large number of people who don't participate, whose voices are not heard and who we do not reach as a government," Hamilton said.

"It also means the government is more responsive, and politicians are more responsive, to the better educated."

He acknowledged that not all Hoosiers have time to study the candidates, learn the issues and cast an informed ballot, given everything else going on in their family, work and personal lives.

Nevertheless, Hamilton said the country only will get better "by citizens stepping up to their responsibility to be citizens, and take on the burden, if you will, of being a good citizen in a representative democracy."

Civic education

Both leaders see civic education, through programs such as "We The People" and "Courts in the Classroom," as key to ensuring the next generation of Hoosiers understands the importance of both formal and informal public engagement.

"People are just overwhelmed by the complexity of government," Hamilton said. "They really are, and that's why you need more civic education, to try to help them through that complexity."

Shepard said he's grateful that Indiana political candidates tend to be more civil than their counterparts in other states, pointing to the clear respect that Republican Eric Holcomb, Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rex Bell had for each other during the 2016 gubernatorial debates.

He said civility in politics encourages greater voter participation and can lead to better policy outcomes, since no political party has a monopoly on good ideas.

Hamilton said whether its around the dinner table, at the factory, in a park, while shopping or in the halls of the Statehouse, Hoosiers simply have to keep talking to each other and listening to each other because "civic engagement is the wellspring of democracy."

"We had 130 million people in this country when I was in high school. We've got 320 million now," Hamilton said.

"You've got all kinds of conflicting views among the people, and you've got to work those views out or you'll be fighting all the time and have utter chaos in the country."

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.