Indiana sees low voter turnout for primary elections

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By Whitney Downard, Indiana Capital Chronicle

As the dust settles from Tuesday’s primary, low turnout continues to plague Indiana’s elections. But some new faces will populate Indiana’s ever-changing political landscape while other politicians didn’t see the comeback they’d hope to achieve.

“Probably the biggest takeaway that I would have is that, in many ways, this was the most competitive primary Indiana has seen in a while. And yet, voter turnout was still exceptionally low,” said Greg Shufeldt, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.

He noted that in Marion County, the largest population center in the state, turnout was as low as 20% even with a historically competitive—and expensive—governor’s race.

“Having a multi-candidate governor’s race—and having as much money that was spent in the race—it was disappointing how few voters turned out to vote,” Shufeldt said.

A final turnout report from the Indiana Secretary of State’s office won’t be ready for weeks, but preliminary reports suggest that turnout hovered around 20% to 25% for many parts of the state.

For comparison, 2022 primary turnout for the state was 14%, lower than the 24% turnout for 2020’s primary—which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and permitted expanded use of absentee ballots.

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the country when it comes to voter turnout for elections, according to the latest Indiana Civic Health Index. Out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., the Hoosier state ranked 50th out of 51 for voter turnout in 2022, and 40th when it comes to registration.

Still, state officials announced last week that the state had seen an increase in voter registration leading up to Tuesday’s elections.

The Secretary of State’s office reported an increase in voter registrations in the last month before April’s deadline when compared to data from the past five years. Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales pointed to a statewide voter outreach campaign as a driving force behind registration increase.

The latest voter registration and absentee ballot numbers have yet to be released by the Secretary of State, but the office indicated that 4,674,413 Hoosiers were registered to vote as of Jan. 2. That’s equal to about 69% of the state’s population.

Indiana’s late presidential primary

Hoosiers voting for president had no primary choices—Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been their parties’ nominees for months—but that didn’t stop some from checking the box for comparatively moderate Republican Nikki Haley. She dropped out of the race in March, but garnered votes from one in five, about 21%, of Republican voters.

That may have been a protest vote, per Shufeldt. Indiana has open primary elections, so Democrats and independents may have pulled GOP ballots and voted against the former president.

Although moderate group ReCenter Indiana and others have encouraged such primary-swapping, Shufeldt said getting voters to do so “systematically” would require a “more concerted push.”

Votes for Haley tallied at close to 125,000 as of Wednesday, according to the Indiana Secretary of State. Trump led in all Indiana counties, however.

The former United Nations Ambassador earned the highest support in Boone, Hamilton, Marion, Tippecanoe and St. Joseph counties, where 30% or more of voters opted for Haley. The most votes—35.1%–came from Republicans in Marion County, equal to nearly 16,000 Hoosiers.

In the 2020 primary, almost 92% of Indiana’s Republican voters supported Trump. In a much more crowded GOP field in 2016, Trump topped eight other candidates, earning 33.6% of Republicans’ votes.

Braun walks away with it

Indiana’s most expensive gubernatorial primary ended in a whimper just an hour after most of the state’s polls closed, with U.S. Sen. Mike Braun finishing 18 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor.

He came into the race with a hefty war chest, as did Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, but he didn’t spend the most; that was businessman Brad Chambers, who finished third. Chambers and Eric Doden, both wealthy entrepreneurs, poured money into their respective campaigns—including several multimillion dollar loans on Chambers’ part.

“This is kind of the power of incumbency and status quo,” Shufeldt said.

But, he noted, Braun did not win over a majority of primary voters; the senator won a plurality of about 40%.

Meanwhile, former Attorney General Curtis Hill’s political comeback ended with him at the bottom of the pile of Republican gubernatorial candidates—behind a conservative activist running on a shoestring budget but backed by dedicated volunteers.

“Other candidates with similarly sullied reputations that have been rejected by voters can find second or third chances, so I wouldn’t necessarily rule (a rebound) out,” Shufeldt said. But, he added, “Who Curtis Hill would have needed to win an election was so very clearly already in Sen. Braun’s camp.”

The Indiana Supreme Court in 2020 suspended then-Attorney General Hill’s law license for 30 days after finding that he committed criminal battery, and he lost in a 2020 convention to sitting Attorney General Todd Rokita.

Changes coming to the Statehouse

Two incumbent state lawmakers lost their seats in Tuesday’s elections: Rep. Sharon Negele and Sen. David Vinzant of Hobart. Several others narrowly survived close elections.

Vinzant narrowly won the seat in a January caucus vote over Mark Spencer, but Spencer won the voters on Tuesday. Negele, on the other hand, had held her seat for five terms, losing to military veteran and teacher Matthew Commons by over 2,000 votes.

The Attica Republican has represented House District 13 since 2012. The seat is geographically large, covering all of Benton and Warren counties, and portions of Fountain, Jasper, Montgomery, Newton, Tippecanoe and White counties.

She has been known in the Statehouse as an effective legislator with clout in the House Republican caucus. Earlier this year she spearheaded a bill to tackle the criminalization of revenge pornography using artificial intelligence.

But the race against Commons was about local control, said Dave Bangert, a local journalist running the Based in Lafayette Substack.

The biggest part of that was the move by the state to pipe millions of gallons of water from Tippecanoe County to central Indiana for the LEAP Innovation Park. Negele filed legislation to slow down or curb that process but it went nowhere.

Elsewhere in the district, a controversial carbon sequestration project that Negele supported also loomed large. And even a local puppy mill ban got caught up in a preemptive new law taking power from communities.

“Commons said there is nobody down there who can save us. We need a change and a different voice,” Bangert said. “The rural communities came together with a loud voice.”

He also added that Negele’s defeat will be felt by Purdue University and Tippecanoe, and noted the district will lose a lot of influence in the caucus.

Commons ultimately took 60% of the vote in the race.

A preview of races to come

A wave of Republican General Assembly retirements opened up seats that attracted several primary contenders, including one four-way race that was decided by less than 100 votes. The Indiana Democratic Party hopes to flip some of these in November’s elections, especially those in vulnerable suburban seats around Indianapolis, meaning that the deluge of spending and advertising is far from over.

A “Break the Supermajority” tour by the party launched in Carmel, featuring Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn alongside House candidates Matt McNally and Josh Lowry as well as Senate candidate Joel Levi.

Democrat Garcia Wilburn’s seat was previously held by a Republican who retired, longtime educator and lawmaker Tony Cook. McNally, a retired military veteran, and Lowry, an attorney, hope to also flip Republican seats vacated after the retirements of Jerry Torr and Donna Schaibley, respectively.

Lowry will face off against former Colts player Hunter Smith while McNally is running against business leader Danny Lopez in November.

Pharmacy technician Levi, on the other hand, is targeting incumbent Noblesville Sen. Scott Baldwin.

All three seats cover portions of Hamilton County, long a Republican enclave but one of the fastest-growing parts of the state—which Democrats hope can be used to their advantage in November’s elections.

However, breaking the GOP’s decade-old supermajority in both chambers is easier said than done. Republicans currently hold 40 of 50 seats in the Senate and 70 of 100 seats in the House, meaning any action requiring a two-thirds majority vote can advance without Democratic input.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.