Only 31-percent of registered voters in Tippecanoe County actually voted in last year’s general election. That anemic turnout was still double what the primary election registered. Both elections were in keeping with similar trends at the state level.
The Greater Lafayette League of Women Voters, the Hanna Community Center and the group Citizens for Civil Rights are trying to address those worrying statistics by pondering an age-old problem: how to get young and minority voters more invested in politics.
Citizens for Civil Rights President Mike Smith says those demographic groups aren’t voting and aren’t represented on the ballot.
“Among well over a hundred elected offices in this county, from township boards to city councils, to countywide offices, there are only two folks of color in office,” Smith says.
Smith says it’s puzzling because there seems to be a disconnect: young people appear passionate about certain issues, but then don’t express their feelings at the polls. Smith says the Lafayette group of organizations is trying to recruit more members younger than 30, especially since the heads of the groups don’t belong to the demographics they’re trying to reach.
Michael Oxenrider, who works for the League of Women voters and studied electoral habits at DePaul University, says civic involvement is a gradually acquired habit.
“Once you have kids, once you buy a home in a community, once you start becoming invested in a community, you tend to notice more reasons why you should go out and vote,” Oxenrider says.
Citizens for Civil Rights member Dylan Yoki, who's 28, says candidates could change the way they communicate information to reflect the current crop of more secular, internet-savvy voters .
“We mentioned in this forum that, basically, newspapers and churches were the way to go in previous generations but that just doesn’t fly anymore,” Yoki says.
Tippecanoe County Minority Health Coalition Coordinator Veronica Jalomo says among minority groups, there’s always a trust issue when the people don’t know the person running for office.
Jalomo says candidates could quell the effect with better outreach.
“These individuals that are running for office, they might go out into the community, but are they targeting those minorities and how are they targeting those minorities?” Jalomo says.
The U.S. Census Bureau says roughly one-fifth of Tippecanoe County’s population identifies as a historic racial minority. Counting only those of voting age, that’s between 20,000 and 30,000 voters – more than enough to swing most local elections, and probably for Democrats.
The New York Times reported that in 2014 U.S. House of Representatives races, black voters voted for Democratic candidates 90-percent of the time. And a majority of all voters younger than 44 years old also voted Democratic.
So even though Citizens for Civil Rights President Mike Smith took pains at an organizing event this week to identify himself as a Republican, his party isn’t likely to gain. Among the other organizers of the event, Hanna Center Executive Director Heather Maddox is also the Tippecanoe County Democratic Party chair. And the League of Women Voters’ Michael Oxenrider sought political office as a Democrat against an entrenched Republican opponent, State Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette), in 2010. Oxenrider lost by a wide margin.
Purdue political scientist James McCann agrees that if more minorities were voting, chances are they would vote Democrat.
“Minorities generally lean toward the Democratic party,” McCann says. “This is true for Latinos; it’s especially true for African-Americans, that’s a truism that dates back to about the 1960s. There about you saw this real decisive partisan split on civil rights issues.”
Eight years ago, West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, a Republican, won his race by fewer than 600 votes over Democrat Jan Mills. If even a fraction of the minority and young voters in liberal-leaning West Lafayette go to the polls, as the group hopes, it’s exactly the kind of race whose outcome could change in the future.