Mark Bennett: 'Powerful feeling to have a voice' begins with voter registration

Sep. 30—Backpack toting teenagers and twenty-somethings walking to and from college classes paused at a voter registration table on a cool, breezy afternoon on the Indiana State University campus.

Those could be their first steps toward a lifetime of civic engagement. At least that's the hope.

The scene may seem somewhat timeless, as volunteers from ISU's chapter of the American Democracy Project manned a table set up outside the Hulman Memorial Student Union Building on Wednesday. Could be 1972 or 2022.

It had a 21st-century twist, though. Taped to the table was a large printout of a QR code — similar to a bar code — that smartphone users can scan, directing them to Indiana voter registration forms and information online through TurboVote, a nationwide project launched in 2010 by the nonpartisan nonprofit Democracy Works. The service provides voting rules and processes for all 50 states. It also relays reminders of approaching registration deadlines and early voting dates.

Those dates are near. Anyone Hoosier hoping to vote in the Nov. 8 election must register by Oct. 11, 29 days before Election Day under Indiana's antiquated law. Then, early voting begins Oct. 12.

Haley Osmon, an ISU sophomore from Washington, Ind., scanned the QR code Wednesday after talking with American Democracy Project volunteer Jazmin Cornejo. The 20-year-old applied medicine major aims to register and vote for the first time this fall.

"Just knowing what's going on and who's running and what they believe in has a big impact on us and what's going on in the community," Osmon said.

What an eloquent summary of the importance of participating in the nation's democracy.

Likewise, Cornejo has become attuned to the need to educate herself on candidates and issues since casting her first vote in the 2020 election, as well as serving in the Democracy Project. The 20-year-old legal-studies major from Nappanee has helped acclimate her own parents, both immigrants, to the electoral process.

"That was my influence," Cornejo said, with a smile, of guiding her parents' in voting preparation.

The entry point for newcomer voters is registration, and Cornejo wants interested students to know "the process is so easy." All it takes is a scan of a QR code with a smartphone, filling out a registration form and mailing it to the county clerk's office. "You just need a driver's license, and that's it," Cornejo said.

The next step involves more of what college students do all year — homework. Studying the candidates and the issues helps inform their votes. "When it comes to research, that takes a little bit more work than just going to the polls."

Once they've done that research, college students could choose either Vigo County or their previous home county, depending on where they prefer to vote.

Many ISU students opt to vote in Vigo County on Election Day at the vote center inside the student union building. The sight of dozens of young people lined up, anxious to vote at the campus vote center has been inspiring since the Vigo County Election Board approved it in 2018. The vote center's popularity gained national distinction for ISU, with Washington Monthly honoring the university as one of the "Best Colleges for Student Voting" in both 2018 and 2020.

The school's encouragement of civic engagement will benefit every community its students choose to live, work and recreate. It's happening at a time of heightened youth voting participation.

Fifty percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted in 2020, according to estimates by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (or CIRCLE), an 11-percentage-point rise from 2016 and likely the strongest youth turnout since Congress gave 18-year-olds voting rights in 1972. The same age group set a record in 2018, with 28% of those registered casting ballots for a midterm election — which typically draw less interest because there's not a presidential race, CIRCLE reports.

This year also is a midterm election. Unique issues could push another strong turnout among youth voters, though their levels always lag older age groups. "Possibly some of that [possible heightened young-voter interest] could be motivated by the [Supreme Court's Dobbs vs. Jackson ruling on abortion], but across the political spectrum," said Barbara Tully of the nonpartisan Indiana Vote By Mail organization.

Quenn Davis came to ISU from Indianapolis. She's now a 24-year-old Sycamore graduate student, pursuing a master's degree in clinical mental health and serving as a supervisor for the university's Democracy Project chapter. After Wednesday's voter registration event, Davis and the volunteers prepared for a Thursday night "Pizza and Politics" forum in the student union, featuring a discussion on climate change and sustainability.

For Davis, the journey began with her first vote in 2020.

"It was, first of all, a powerful feeling to have a voice in the election," Davis said, as Cornejo chatted with two more students at the registration table. "It also was a big learning moment, kind of an education for myself," especially on down-ballot races for local political offices.

The challenge for voters, young and old and in between, is to become familiar with those candidates. Public forums hosted by the League of Women Voters, the League's election information website ( and candidate interviews in newspapers, such as the Tribune-Star, can enlighten voters.

"It is imperative that our voters try to obtain as much information as possible about all the candidates," said Carolyn Callecod, president of the League of Women Voters of Vigo County.

The local League's candidate forums have included voter registration opportunities. The upcoming state representative candidate forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Vigo County Public Library will have a voter registration table. The League will also conduct voter registration from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Family Farm Day. A school board candidate forum drew a packed house Sept. 20 at the library.

"The recent large turnout for the school board forum reflects our citizens' concerns, and interest, in making our community a better place to live," Callecod said.

Statewide, a total of 60,576 Hoosiers of all ages have newly registered since the May primary, as of Thursday, according to the Election Division of the Indiana Secretary of State's office. Another 137,753 have updated their registrations since then.

"People seem to be motivated," said Tully of Indiana Vote By Mail. "That seems to be the vibe, and voter registrations are up.

"Whether that translates into people showing up and voting, I don't know," she added.

We'll soon find out.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or