Rich James: Obama's address and Indiana voter access
Monday, January 16, 2017 2:23 PM
MERRILLVILLE – Perhaps it was only fitting that President Barack Obama gave his last national address within a stone’s throw of Indiana. He never referred to the state by name, but some of his references about the future could well have been promoted by Hoosier history. Obama’s talk was essentially a civics lesson as he encouraged people to revisit the same political roots that got him elected. “Democracy is threatened when taken for granted,” the president said.
Obama talked about the U.S. Constitution being a wonderful document but is little more than a piece of paper. “We the people give it power,” Obama said. And then his hour-long civics lesson hit home in Indiana. “We should be making it easier, not harder, to vote,” the president said. Almost a decade ago, Indiana made it more difficult to vote when it passed the voter ID law that requires a voter to show a government photo ID before being allowed to vote.
That law was sponsored by former Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a native of Munster, who is now a member of Congress. Indiana hasn’t passed additional laws to make it more difficult for people to vote. But the Republican-controlled legislature wouldn’t think of allowing people to register and cast a vote on Election Day. That is a practice that more states are moving toward.
One very positive thing has happened in Indiana as a result of what occurred in 2008, the first time Obama ran for president. Because early voting sites were very limited in Lake County, there were massive lines of voters snaking out of the county government center. Wait times were measured in hours, not minutes.
The uproar over the long waits prompted the county election board to greatly expand early voting sites and their hours. While that was a help to Lake County voters, Republicans are attempting to make it more difficult to vote on another level. The General Assembly, at the behest of Lake County Republicans, approved legislation attempting to force Lake County Democrats to reduce the number of precincts, and thus the number of polling sites.
That would make it more difficult for voters in urban areas who don’t have transportation to get to the polls. That would reduce the number of Democratic votes.
And, Obama urged middle America to continue the fight for voting rights as the means to right what’s wrong in the country. He cautioned, “Far too many of us feel safer to retreat into our own bubble.”
Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana.