Learning lasts longest when we participate.
A kid can read a dozen books on how to hit a curveball, but until he stands in the batter’s box and gives it a try, the instructions on those pages mean little.
Recently, a bill proposed in the Indiana General Assembly drew nationwide attention. It aims to increase the civic engagement of young Hoosiers. House Bill 1296 would require high school students to pass the same 100-question test taken by immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens. They’d need to get 60 correct answers to be eligible for their diploma, starting in the 2016-17 school year.
The bill’s author — Rep. Timothy Wesco, an Indianapolis Republican — told Indianapolis television station WXIN-Channel 59, “In Indiana, we set a record as last (in the nation) on voter turnout in this last election. Regardless of what we’re teaching right now in our schools, we’re doing something wrong.”
Indeed, the Hoosier turnout hit an embarrassingly low, nationally worst 27.8 percent among its voting-eligible population, according to the U.S. Elections Project. (Those calculations include people eligible to become voters, not just those registered.) And, indeed, a deeper understanding of government, geography and civic affairs could make more people acknowledge the value of voting. But most high schools already teach the topics covered in the citizenship test, and the last thing Indiana teachers and students need is yet another standardized test.
The cause of Indiana’s poor voter turnout has many tentacles, though. Most involve the voting hurdles within Indiana’s law — the needless 1913-era registration deadline of 29 days before an election, the 6 p.m. Election Day poll closing time, and the voter ID law imposed to fight the imaginary problem of in-person voter fraud.
A different, more meaningful bill pending in the Legislature — one that could boost and sustain the growth of voter turnout long-term — has gotten almost no attention.
That proposal — from Rep. Robin Shackleford, an Indianapolis Democrat — would allow 16-year-olds to get registered to vote when they apply for a driver’s license at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Sixteen-year-olds couldn’t actually vote until they’ve turned 18, but they would already be registered and ready to hit the polls when that day comes.
The idea of House Bill 1173 is “trying to get them involved in this process early, and to see the issues,” Shackleford said by telephone last week. “We stand a much better chance of getting (young people) in the pipeline of civic participation.” As of Friday afternoon, the bill had been assigned to the Committee on Elections and Apportionment but hadn’t yet received a hearing, Shackleford said.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already allow 16-year-olds to similarly preregister for voting. Among those in the Midwest, their turnouts last November exceeded Indiana’s — Iowa 49.7 percent, Minnesota 50.2 and Kansas 42.5. One of the points of hesitation for some states is the cost of implementing preregistration. The Indiana bill’s language calls for the BMW to transmit voter registration forms filled out by young drivers to the state Election Division, which would then transmit those forms to the appropriate county voter registration offices — an efficient idea.
Just as a shovel-ready project makes it more likely to become a reality, an election-ready 18-year-old is more likely to vote than one who must remember the deadline a month ahead of time. As Shackleford said, if they get in the civic engagement pipeline, they’re more inclined to stay there.
The citizenship test would challenge thousands of Hoosiers, of any age, including many who attended school during eras that adults deem the “good old days” of education. (What are the two longest rivers in the U.S.? That’s one of the 100 questions.) Adding it to the tests already on the long, state-mandated drill list might actually sour teens on voting.
The bill to preregister teenagers has a stronger potential to actually send more Hoosiers into polling booths and, thus, create lifelong Indiana voters.
Mark Bennett writes for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to [email protected].