Someday, Hoosiers will be able to walk into a polling place, show a driver's license, ID card or a recent utility bill, register to vote and then cast their ballot moments later.
That scenario already happens in places like Illinois, Michigan, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and 14 other states. Voting laws in those states allow residents to register on Election Day, a process better known as same-day registration. Generally, turnouts increase by an average of 5%, according to studies cited by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Indiana typically has lower voter turnout rates. The state ranked 11th worst in the 2018 midterm election, when 46.9% of the voting eligible population went to the polls, according to the United States Election Project. That analysis measures turnout among citizens eligible to vote, rather than just those registered to vote. Indiana's turnout ranked 12th worst in 2016.
It's not a coincidence that Indiana maintains a century-old law requiring residents to register to vote 29 days before an election. People who haven't voted before, including young residents, may have just gotten interest in the political campaigns a month before the election. That antiquated deadline — enacted in 1925 as a revision of an earlier 1913 law during the days of handwritten voter lists and poll books — locks out folks just tuning into election issues, as well as those who've moved and forgotten to update their registration.
Thanks to Indiana's strict voter ID law, enacted in 2006 as a remedy for a nonexistent voter fraud problem, same-day registration should be doable in the state, just like those 21 other states.
"The more accessible we can be, the better our voter turnout can be," said Tonya Pfaff, a Vigo County high school teacher who represents Terre Haute and District 43 of the Indiana House. The 2020 session will be her second since getting elected in 2018.
Pfaff "absolutely" intends to attempt what her predecessor, retired Rep. Clyde Kersey, and several other mostly Democratic state legislators tried in the past. Pfaff plans to introduce a bill in this session of the General Assembly to allow Hoosiers to both register and vote on Election Day or during early voting periods. Her bill would also extend polling by two hours on Election Day, allowing residents to vote from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., instead of the current 6 p.m. closing time — the nation's earliest. (Polls also close at 6 p.m. in Kentucky.)
Last year, Pfaff introduced that same bill. It didn't get a hearing in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee. She'll try again in the 2020 session that begins this week.
"The first hurdle is, the bill has to be heard at the committee level," she said.
Republicans control the Legislature and have repelled most attempts to reform Indiana's voting laws, except to impose more restrictions. That resistance seems to pertain to perceptions that low turnouts favor Republican candidates, while high turnouts favor Democratic candidates. Yet, several conservative Western states such as Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Utah allow same-day registration.
"It's no secret that Indiana has one of the worst voter turnout percentages in the country. It's past time for the state Legislature to update our voting laws to give Hoosiers more access to voting," said Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, a Democrat from Fort Wayne and House Democratic Caucus leader. He supports Pfaff's bill because it and other enhanced voter access proposals "because it's better for our state and for our democracy."
Pfaff's bill could have a chance if a Republican colleague would serve as its coauthor. Such a gesture would be bold and is highly unlikely, given that voter access is now stereotyped as a partisan issue, influencing voters' perceptions. If Republican voters see same-day registration as a Democratic idea, instead of just good government, they won't likely press legislators to favor it.
The Indiana House Republicans Caucus did not offer a comment Friday on whether it would carry forward legislation on same-day registration in this year's session.
Indiana ranks 47th, fourth worst in America, in the "Cost of Voting Index" compiled in a nationwide 2018 study led by Scot Schraufnagel, chair of Northern Illinois University's political science department. Researchers weighed factors such as registration restrictions, voter ID laws, early and mail-in voting opportunities, and automatic voter registration (such as with any license branch transaction or high school enrollment). Indiana ranked 38th in the index in 1996, a decade before it adopted one of the nation's strictest voter ID laws.
By far, the 29-days-before-the-election registration deadline most greatly influenced Indiana's low ranking, although the voter ID law also inhibits voting. The 29-day deadline is "the number one cost of voting," Schraufnagel said Friday afternoon by phone. "It creates the need to vote twice," he added, referring to citizens having to make separate trips to register and cast a ballot.
"Same-day registration is becoming the norm across the country," Schraufnagel said.
For now, Indiana isn't part of that trend. "I'll keep fighting for it," Pfaff vowed.
— Mark Bennett is a columnist with The Tribune-Star in Terre Haute. He can be reached at email@example.com.