From Voice to Influence

Building Civically Engaged leaders

While issues smolder and fizzle, political platforms shift, and technology broadens and deepens, faculty at the University of North Georgia work to help their students develop an interest in politics and a keen understanding of how some trends have changed while others are remarkably unchanged from centuries ago.

Student showing another student voting information.

“Studies have shown that voting habits developed during a student’s college years tend to become lifelong habits of civic engagement,” said Dr. Renee Bricker, associate professor of history at UNG. “This means that institutionalizing voter engagement opportunities can help to create a campus culture of civic participation.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 60 percent of non-voters in 2012 missed Election Day because of issues such as lack of time, registration problems and inconvenient polling places. UNG partnered with Democracy Works, Inc. to research the integration of civic engagement into existing technology on campuses across the country. TurboVote, an initiative launched by Democracy Works aimed at making voting easier for college students, helps institutions promote and track registration by encouraging their enrolled students to complete a short online process.

Student filling out voter registration.
UNG commemorates Constitution Day each year with activities including voter registration drives, presentations by elected officials, and political discussions.

In 2012, UNG was the first school in Georgia to become a TurboVote collegiate partner and has been a national leader in IT integration with TurboVote through pop-ups at election and registration times.

Bricker and Dr. Nathan Price are the lead research team in a study that surveyed administrators, faculty and students from 25 colleges and universities about strategies to combine internet technology with voter registration and turnout nationwide.

For Bricker, it’s also increasingly important to help students draw parallels between current and past political issues.

Renee Bricker and Nathan Price at the University of North Georgia are the lead research team for the TurboVote IT Integration Research Project.
Drs. Renee Bricker and Nathan Price are leading a national study to determine how to increase election participation among college students.

“In 1984, some of the most important issues were economics and jobs, national defense and the USSR, concern about the car industry in Asia, and apartheid in South Africa,” Bricker said. “Some of these issues don’t even exist anymore, while some of them are in the spotlight again. Some of today’s issues are fairly new — no one mentioned terrorism in the eighties, and even during the Cold War, there was not the same level of worry about safety and security as there is today. Regardless of what we are talking about, I always strive to help students see we are all in this together.”

Some of today’s issues are fairly new – no one mentioned terrorism in the eighties, and even during the Cold War, there was not the same level of worry about safety and security as there is today.
– Dr. Renee Bricker

The university also is involved in the American Democracy Project (ADP), a multi-campus initiative focused on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens. Charlene Hudson, lecturer of political science, is part of the ADP committee, and she starts her students’ political engagement journey with typology quizzes about major modern issues.

“This process introduces them to the political candidates that are of the same opinion on those issues as well as exposing them to all the candidates’ opinions on the different issues,” Hudson said. “The final quiz is the ‘Political Compass.’ Most of my students are unable to analyze their results very well in the beginning of the semester, but by mid-semester they are understanding more and more of their results.”

Hudson noted how current technology has changed the way younger generations engage with the political news cycle — students are exposed to candidates and issues far more through social media than by watching television.

Though the manner in which students consume political news has changed, the effects of their choice of media outlet may not have changed much at all. This is in the realm of research being conducted by Dr. Glen Smith, associate professor of political science. Supported by a UNG Presidential Summer Scholar Award in 2014, Smith has been researching how partisan media outlets impact consumer opinions. This spring, he was awarded a UNG Presidential Semester Scholar Award to support him in writing a book about political tolerance that will expose readers to strong arguments on both sides of prominent political and social issues.

“Partisan media outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC make viewers more negative toward leaders in the opposing party, but do not have much influence on feelings toward the candidate they ultimately vote for,” Smith said. “I argue that this increases overall negativity toward politicians, which in turn makes it more difficult for political leaders to reach compromise on important matters of public policy.”

When people are not aware of opposing arguments, they often attribute political disagreements to negative causes, such as ideological bias, ignorance, self-interest, lying, or some ulterior motivation.
– Dr. Glen Smith
Glenn Smith
Dr. Glen Smith is researching the impact of partisan media outlets.
Students picking up a voter guide.

Smith’s work shows that exposure to cross-cutting discourse on mainstream news is increasingly important, as people today are more likely to live in politically like-minded communities and avoid political discussions with opposing partisans. This is even more important on campus, where critical examination and discussion of current issues is essential.

“When people are not aware of opposing arguments, they often attribute political disagreements to negative causes, such as ideological bias, ignorance, self-interest, lying, or some ulterior motivation,” Smith said.

Opposing arguments are the bread and butter of Dr. Carl Cavalli’s efforts as the faculty advisor for the Political Science Student Association (PSSA). Cavalli, who is also on the ADP committee, facilitates a weekly discussion called “Crossfire” that deals with a specific, controversial subject each week. For example, the first three discussions fall semester covered feminism, gun control and human trafficking. The meetings are designed to give students an open, judgment-free forum where they can discuss their views and hear other opinions. The association also provides student voter guides that have information on candidates from the presidential election to Georgia state legislators.

“One current trend is the increasing ideological purity of the political parties and their resulting polarization. Part of this is due to the disappearance of any information costs because of current technology,” Cavalli said. “We now create our own information cocoons — surrounding ourselves with only the info we want — and there are an infinite number of media sources willing to cater to this.”

These “cocoons” can foster a harmful level of skepticism, Cavalli said, something he challenges in his courses and in the PSSA.

“Some skepticism is a good thing, as it drives inquisitiveness and learning. However, when you doubt everything, it frees you up — in an unhealthy way — to believe in anything you want,” Cavalli said. “On a brighter note, I think I’ve seen more activism among students of all stripes in recent years, and that’s one thing I hope to nurture in every area I can.”

I think I’ve seen more activism among students of all stripes in recent years, and that’s one thing I hope to nurture in every area I can.
– Dr. Carl Cavalli
Students at Crossfire gathering where they discuss political issues.
Dr. Carl Cavalli hosts weekly “Crossfire” discussions to facilitate student dialog on political and other current topics.