As the CEO of Women4Change Indiana, Rima Shahid spends her time talking to potential voters, trying to convince them to support policies that would make the state a better place for women.
“The statement that we hear time and time again is that it doesn’t matter,” Shahid said.
It’s not that people in Indiana are apathetic. According to Shahid, they are disenfranchised.
Indiana’s election laws are strict. Voters need to show a government-issued ID to cast a ballot, they can submit an absentee ballot only if they fall under one of 11 excused categories, and Indiana does not provide drop boxes for people to submit absentee ballots in more convenient times and locations.
The state adopted some of its most stringent election laws after Barack Obama won the state in 2008. He was the first Democratic candidate for president to win Indiana in 44 years, but a Democrat hasn’t taken the state since.
But the real issue with Indiana’s elections, according to Shahid and other activists, is the way the state’s political districts have been drawn up to ensure Republican control over the political process. Christopher Warshaw, a George Washington University professor hired by Women4Change to analyze Indiana’s district maps, found the maps used by the state from 2012 through 2022 to be more biased towards one party — in Indiana’s case the Republican party — than 95% of the maps drawn nationwide over the past 50 years. Republicans, who have long held the majority in the Indiana statehouse, drew new maps in 2021 that will be used in the 2022 elections. In a preliminary study, Warshaw found those maps to “have historically extreme levels of partisan bias.”
“Our elected officials have chosen their constituents instead of the constituents choosing their elected officials,” Shahid said.
Indiana has some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, and Shahid said the way the state chooses its elected officials is the root issue at the heart of voters’ concerns, no matter the party.
“If you’re upset with public schools, think about gerrymandering. If you’re upset about infrastructure, think gerrymandering,” Shahid said. “Any single issue that you take, you can take it all back to gerrymandering, voting access and fair votes.”
Members of the Indiana General Assembly draw new political maps every 10 years, using the most up to date Census data.
Bryce Gustafson is an organizer with the Citizens Action Coalition in Indiana. Gustafson’s organization typically advocates for consumers on issues like the cost of utilities and healthcare, but, like Shahid, members of the Citizens Action Coalition realized it couldn’t advocate effectively without addressing the way Indiana chooses its representatives.
The coalition joined with 24 other organizations to create the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting, or All In For Democracy, to push officials towards creating an independent body to oversee redistricting, a step other states have taken to help protect against partisan interference in the mapmaking process.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Coalition members knocked on doors, held their own forums and created their own commission made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three people who didn’t identify with either party.
Gustafson said the vast majority of people the coalition heard from supported a fair redistricting process, no matter what political party they supported.
Gustafson remembers knocking on the very first door of the campaign and speaking to a conservative-minded man in Franklin, Indiana, about 20 miles south of Indianapolis.
“This guy said ‘you know, I like the way things are right now,’” Gustafson remembers. “And I said, ‘that’s fair. But what happens when the other side takes over and does what you don’t like?’”
Gustafson said the man agreed that single-party control was an issue, and became the coalition’s first signature in support of creating an independent redistricting body.
According to a report of the coalition’s findings released in May 2021, the Indiana public expressed a desire for more competitive elections at the state and Congressional level. They wanted maps that divided cities and communities sharing similar characteristics up as little as possible, and they wanted a redistricting process that was transparent and fair.
Members of the state house and senate election committees held nine open forums of their own, something Gustafson saw as a direct result of the organizing coalition, but the legislature drew up the maps with a Republican supermajority in legislation that passed on Oct. 1, 2021 without a single Democratic vote.
The maps maintained Republican’s stranglehold on Indiana’s political districts, with some tweaks that further gerrymandered the state, such as moving a Democratic-voting portion of Marion County out of a congressional district previously won in a close election by Republican Rep. Victoria Spartz to the district representing Indianapolis, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds.
Other voting issues
Since the 2020 presidential election, Republican lawmakers in Indiana have made attempts to add additional barriers to the state’s already strict voting laws.
Progressives rallied last legislative session to defeat proposals they claimed would make it harder to submit an absentee ballot by requiring people to not only have a state-approved excuse as to why they can’t vote on Election Day, but also attest to that excuse under penalty of perjury. A watered down version of the bill eventually became law, including mostly technical tweaks regarding audits of voting machines. A spokesperson for Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives declined to make the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Timothy Wesco, available for comment.
The year before, lawmakers dropped a proposal to require voters to prove U.S. citizenship after the Indiana Secretary of State’s office said the requirement was unconstitutional. Members of the Secretary of State’s election division did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Also in 2021, the General Assembly passed a law requiring people to provide a driver’s license or the last 4 numbers of their Social Security number when requesting an absentee ballot.
Julia Vaughn, the executive director of Common Cause Indiana, said people seeking to expand election access in Indiana find themselves constantly on the defensive.
“Very rarely do we get the opportunity to talk about proactive, pro-voting rights or legislative changes. We are often trying to prevent bad things from happening,” Vaughn said. “We’re like that little boy who sticks his finger in the hole on the side of a dike to stop it from flooding, but we often times don’t have enough fingers.”
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