A democracy’s primer: Power of the ballot box

A Democracy’s Primer is a collaboration between the journalism and legal communities to aid the public’s understanding of how government works with citizen engagement. Volunteers for the Indiana Bar Foundation (Bar Foundation) will write the articles for distribution by the Hoosier State Press Association Foundation. More about the both organizations may be found at inbf.org/ and hspafoundation.org/. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Thomas Jefferson captured the idea of where a legitimate government gets its authority to govern in the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776.

This power comes from the consent of the governed. It is we the people, through our votes, that give legitimacy to our democracy. However, when Jefferson penned his famous declaration, only white, male property owners were actually allowed to bestow that authority.

President Lyndon B. Johnson stated at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

But it wasn’t just African-American men who were “imprisoned” by lacking the vote; women had to fight for this fundamental right as well.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul led their respective suffragist organizations utilizing speeches, marches and acts of civil disobedience to obtain access to the ballot box.

Paul and her “Silent Sentinels” picketed outside of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House during World War I, leading to their subsequent arrest and eventual hunger strikes while incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

“Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” became the chant of many soldiers during the Vietnam War. They believed that it was wrong to send men to fight who couldn’t vote. The Supreme Court agreed in Oregon v. Mitchell, paving the way for the 26th Amendment ratified in July 1971.

Over time, violent struggle and incredible sacrifice, the right to vote has been expanded to include almost all U.S. citizens 18 years old or older.

Yet Americans today show up at the polls at a rate which dishonors those sacrifices.

The 2012 campaigns, with an estimated $6 billion spent and an 8-million-person increase in the eligible voters, failed to sustain the upward momentum for turnout shown in 2004 and 2008. Voter turnout dipped from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting in 2008 to an estimated 57.5 percent in 2012. The bottom line is that some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote.

According to the United States Election Project, Indiana ranked last in the nation in voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections with only 27.8 percent of eligible voters participating. Though there are other factors that contributed to this woeful turnout, it illustrates that there is much work to be done to stem the tide of voter apathy.

Look at the 2000 presidential election, and specifically at the key state Florida, where there were over 5.9 million votes cast that year.

When the smoke cleared there was only a 537-vote advantage for George W. Bush over Al Gore. However, if only about 11 people per the 23 legislative districts would’ve changed their votes the outcome of the election would have changed, though perhaps the votes that mattered most in that election were the five cast by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in Bush v. Gore.

Even though it may feel like one’s vote doesn’t matter, or that many feel today that they lack political efficacy, it is so very important for voters to exercise their right to the ballot box.

A muscle that isn’t exercised will atrophy and become weaker.

We disrespect the incredible sacrifices made by countless citizen-activists throughout the nation’s history so that so many more could participate in the political process. They fought to expand Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” to mean “all people.”

It is important to heed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ominous warning, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

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In Indiana, you must be a registered voter to cast a ballot, and there are few ways to do so.

Hoosiers with a valid Indiana driver’s license or state ID can register to vote online at indianavoters.com. State voter registration forms also can be downloaded at indianavoters.com.

Don’t have access to a computer? Call the Indiana Election Division 800-622-4941 or your county voter registration office to request a form be mailed to you.

Once you are registered, your registration stays in effect as long as you continue to live at the address on your registration record (and are not imprisoned after being convicted of a crime). However, you must update your registration if you move or change your name. Many people forget to update their registration when moving and as a result, sometimes are unable to cast a regular ballot on Election Day.

The deadline to submit your voter registration application is Oct. 11. Paper forms must have an original “wet” signature and can be hand-delivered or mailed.

If mailed, make certain the envelope is postmarked on or before Oct. 11. Simply putting the form in a mailbox may not be enough. Those with a valid Indiana driver’s license or state ID can register at indianavoters.com until 11:59 p.m. local time on Oct. 11.

Election Day is Nov. 8.

There are special procedures for overseas voters (military or civilians outside the United States) to register to vote. For more information, see http://www.in.gov/sos/elections/2673.htm.

There are special procedures for overseas voters (military or civilians outside the United States) to cast an absentee ballot. For more information, see http://www.in.gov/sos/elections/2673.htm.

SOURCE: Election division of Indiana Secretary of State

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There are three ways to vote absentee in Indiana: in-person at the clerk’s office, by mail or by traveling board. Absentee ballot application forms are available to download at indianavoters.com or picked up at your county election board.

Every voter is entitled to cast an absentee ballot in person at a county election office between Oct. 12 and noon Nov. 7.  You do not need a reason to “vote early” but will need to bring an valid photo ID issued by the state of Indiana or federal government. While it’s sometimes called “early voting,” your ballot will not be opened and counted until Election Day.

To vote by mail, a person must complete an ABS-MAIL application and mark a reason such as: being absent from your county on election day, confined due to illness or injury, are disabled or elderly, are scheduled to work during the hours the polls are open, or are a military or public safety officer.

You can mail, fax, email, or hand-deliver this application. However, your application must be received by your county no later than Oct. 31.

Unlike voter registration forms, envelopes postmarked by but received after the deadline day cannot be processed. A mailed absentee ballot must be received by your county no later than noon on Election Day in most counties. A ballot received by the county after that time is too late to be counted in most cases.

Traveling board is an option for confined voter or their caregivers. In this case, a bipartisan team of election workers visit your home, deliver an absentee ballot, and are available to provide assistance, if requested.

The team then returns the ballot to the county after you have marked it. Traveling board applications must be received by noon Nov 7. However, traveling board appointments are limited so submit the request as early as possible.

There are special procedures for overseas voters (military or civilians outside the United States) to cast an absentee ballot. For more information, see http://www.in.gov/sos/elections/2673.htm.

SOURCE: Election division of Indiana Secretary of State

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Chris Cavanaugh is a social studies teacher at Plainfield High School and an Indiana Bar Foundation Board member. Send comments to [email protected]