This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Engaged Scholarship Series. If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Thessalia Merivaki, Ph.D., Mississippi State University
Building civic capacity through community-engaged learning (CEL)
College students participate in elections at lower rates than average Americans. And yet, being in college exposes them to an environment of diversity, inclusion, political debate, political dissent, and a multitude of social interactions. If the foundations for civic engagement exist, why is there such a disconnect between the college experience and political participation?
Community-engaged learning (CEL) is a great tool for Higher Education Institutions to directly engage students in anything social and political, and electoral participation is no exception. Researchers confirm that learning through doing improves students’ communication and leadership skills, builds long-lasting partnerships with communities of interest, and builds reciprocity among students who become personally invested in improving their community. Insofar as voting is concerned, researchers find that peer-to-peer grassroots interaction significantly increases the likelihood that college students will register and turnout to vote in elections.
This semester, in conjunction with “All-In Campus Democracy Challenge,” students in my Campaigning Politics class at Mississippi State University worked to register voters on our campus. We had three main goals: voter registration (September 25, – October 8, 2018), voter education (October 9- November 6, 2018), and voter turnout (assisting students with casting an absentee ballot to providing rides to the polls on Election Day).
“Mississippi State is All-In” and Campaign Politics
In my class, we took advantage of the upcoming midterm election, which presents an opportunity for students to directly engage in the context of Mississippi politics and be able to apply the knowledge they receive in class out on the field. Although political campaigns are candidate-centric, this class takes a voter-centric approach, based on Political Science theories of political behavior and empirical evidence. We examine the mechanics behind a political campaign operation, whose emphasis is to mobilize a specific segment of the electorate to win an election, and a voter education/outreach campaign operation, whose emphasis is to mobilize all eligible voters to turnout to vote. Students will assess how these two different desired outcomes shape campaign strategies and plans, and critically evaluate their success post-election.
The first part of the class aims to introduce students to the fundamental concepts around U.S. elections and campaigns, familiarize them with Mississippi’s election laws, and expose them to the empirical study of elections as it pertains to college student voting. In addition, they are asked to review the key literature on voter registration in order to comprehend how institutional structures, such as the requirement of voter registration condition access to voting. That way, students are able to recognize the challenges certain groups face insofar as participating in elections.
National Voter Registration Day: Tangible Targets and Outcomes
In preparation for National Voter Registration Day, students (in 5 groups of 6) were tasked with drafting and presenting a voter registration plan the week prior to National Voter Registration Day, where they had to identify their target student population, their tangible outcome (how many voter registrations), their target location for the registration drive, and their communication plan. Students utilized key data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement Surveys (NSLVE) report on how Mississippi State University performed in 2016:
- 3% were registered to vote, and 39.1% percent turned out to vote, 11.3% less turnout than the national average across Universities and Colleges
- 4% of students in the 18-21 age group turned out to vote.
- Computer Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics, and Engineering have the lowest participation rates.
Based on these key statistics, the class set a goal to register 1,000 new voters. With that number in mind, students identified their target groups, which included freshmen students, student athletes, the Greek community, and STEM majors, and chose key locations on campus where student traffic is high, such as dining halls, the library, the student union, as well as the Athletic Center. All students attended a voter registration training by the county election commissioner four days prior to the event and did a “what to do” session based on different scenarios.
On Tuesday, September 25, a total of 60 students participated in the voter registration drives, including my students (35), student volunteers (27) and faculty from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration (2). The Student Association provided all materials, from voter registration forms and pens, to informational materials and stickers. Because student groups were also sponsoring the events, some tables were able to offer extra “swag” to attract students, such as popsicles and sunglasses. Before getting to their tables, I met the volunteers at 9:30am and then at 10:45 in a centralized location on campus for a briefing session. My role was to oversee and assist, which is why I visited every location and was available for troubleshooting.
What the Students Learned
The first lesson students learned was that sometimes things do not go as planned. Tuesday was a very rainy day, and many students had to move their tables indoors. Some volunteers did not show up, some students were not interested in registering to vote, and some asked questions that the volunteers were not able to answer.
Despite these challenges, students submitted 340 new voter registrations to the county elections office. The local newspaper featured the students’ effort in a story highlighting a testimony by a freshman business administration student, who said “I think it is important [to register to vote] in case someone does realize something, and they want to be part of a greater change.”
This event was successful in various contexts. Primarily, students were able to reach 34% of their voter registration goal in a single day. Secondly, students recognized that engaging in the community entails a high level of uncertainty and requires them to solve problems on the spot. Thirdly, they observe first-hand how peer-to-peer interaction effects positive outcomes, which helps them to connect the empirical research they were exposed to at the start of class to their personal experiences. Finally, they made it happen, which by itself is very empowering.
Dr. Merivaki is an Assistant Professor in American Politics at Mississippi State University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration. She holds a Ph.D. in American politics and Political Methodology from the University of Florida.
Her research focuses on the empirical assessment of election reforms on the administration of elections across the American states. Her research agenda is situated within the growing field of Election Sciences, which includes the study of election reforms, election administration, as well as election data transparency and accessibility.
All photos taken by the author.