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4/15/2018 6:12:00 PM
COMMENTARY: Driving up local civic engagement

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

As Tuesday night's state legislative candidate forum ended, many in the packed room at the Vigo County Public Library had to wonder whether the participants disagree on anything.

Eight candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, generally expressed compatible stances on issues such as Indiana tax credits for home schooling, possible uses for the state budget surplus, gun regulations, NRA campaign contributions, the gender pay gap, women's reproductive rights and Indiana's lack of a hate crimes law. They gave thoughtful, often passionate answers to questions from the audience and the League of Women Voters of Vigo County. When the candidates didn't know they said so. (Isaac Deal, a 21-year-old Indiana State University student seeking the Republican nomination for District 43 state representative, resourcefully Googled one question topic and then transparently relayed his findings.)

A dose of disagreement emerged the next day, though. If handled in the right spirit, the community could benefit from the dispute. 

A proposal to bus Vigo County high school students to the polls on May 8, Indiana primary day, stirred a debate. Vigo County School Board President Jackie Lower suggested the idea at the board's March 19 meeting, as the Tribune-Star's Sue Loughlin reported Wednesday. Lower cited the need for the community to improve its poor voter turnout record by helping young people to learn the polling process. Vigo County School Corp. officials got an approval from the Indiana School Boards Association. The School Board votes April 23 on the proposal.

At least two Democratic candidates for the District 43 state representative seat objected to the idea. Norm Loudermilk and Chad Overton question the use of taxpayer-funded buses to transport high school students to vote centers. Disabled and elderly residents in housing complexes such as Warren Village, Garfield Towers and Liberty Village — with no vote center nearby — need transportation to the polls more than the teens, Loudermilk said. And why is the bus-students-to-the-polls plan happening now, instead of the past, they asked.

There's a political element for opposition to the plan. District 43 candidate Tonya Pfaff is a teacher at Terre Haute North Vigo High School. Could a group of North students getting bused to the polls benefit Pfaff over four Democratic opponents?

Pfaff quipped, "Who would not welcome the opportunity to vote against their math teacher?" Loughlin reported. Turning serious, Pfaff emphasized the "fantastic" value of encouraging young, newcomers to experience voting.

This shouldn't be an either-or situation. With historically low voter turnouts in recent elections, Vigo County would indeed benefit from the school district offering school-bus transportation to the polls for first-time high school voters. And, Loudermilk is correct in pointing out that many elderly, disabled and low-income residents are geographically isolated from Vigo County vote centers and could benefit from transportation to the polls.

So do both.

Numerous cities across the country suspend fares on Election Day and offer free bus and public transit rides to the polls. Among those are Durham, Salisbury and Asheville, N.C; Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas; Minneapolis; Tampa, Fla.; Santa Fe and Roswell, N.M.; Bangor, Maine.; Lansing, Mich.; Columbia and Kansas City, Mo.; Lawrence, Kan. And right here in Indiana, Fort Wayne Citilink bus service offered free Election Day rides.

The one-day loss in revenue, for example, in Durham during that city's 2017 municipal election — $6,300 — was worth the increased turnout, the local mayor told the Durham Herald Sun. In Terre Haute's case, perhaps a law firm, business or service organization could sponsor free Election Day bus fares.

For now, some low-cost ride options are available in Terre Haute: 

• Though City Hall closes on Election Day, city buses will be operating, said Debbie Hensley, Terre Haute Transit director. For people age 60 and older, the disabled, veterans and Medicare cardholders can ride round-trip to the closest vote center and back for $1.70. The buses, Hensley added, are handicap accessible and run from 5:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. within the city limits.

"We'll try our best to help anybody who needs to get to a poll, within our routes," Hensley said. 

• Many consumers of services at the WILL Center, a nonprofit aimed at helping disabled folks access the community, use Terre Haute Transit's door-to-door ADA transport. One-way rides are $2.25, and personal care attendants ride free, said Pete Ciancone, the WILL Center executive director. Hensley urged people seeking the ADA transport on Election Day to call in a reservation at 812-235-0109. Ciancone said the WILL Center encourages people to use absentee ballots or early voting opportunities.

• The Area 7 Agency on Aging and Disabled offers free transport on Election Day for Vigo County residents 60 and older, or disabled, to the nearest vote center, said Dale Nightingale, the Area 7 transportation coordinator. Space in the agency's vehicle is limited, though, so anyone interested should call in advance to 812-232-2675.

• Also, a suggestion arose that Vigo County should offer a mobile vote center, almost like a bookmobile-style polling station. Such a service would be legal, said Brad King, co-director of the bipartisan Indiana Election Division. The county Election Board would have to approve it.

Vigo County needs more young people involved in civic engagement, and starting a new tradition of school bus rides to the polls for high school seniors would introduce more of them to voting and help make it a lifetime habit. Also, a program to offer free Election Day city bus rides to vote centers could help isolated elderly, poor and disabled voters participate in the democratic process. Implementing both would be a win-win for community involvement.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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