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Student voting challenge connects political scientist’s research with civic engagement

Aug. 31, 2016

Bernard Fraga developed a fascination with elections and voting as a high school student in Mishawaka, Ind., where he worked the polls on Election Day, and as an undergraduate at Stanford University, where he participated in student government and helped run student body elections.

Bernard Fraga

Bernard Fraga | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

He took the interest further as a graduate student at Harvard.

“I saw the same kinds of issues: Students not being involved, not engaged; trying to figure out what stimulates people to vote,” he said. “I realized this interest and this experience I had as an undergraduate might actually tie into my academic career.”

And it has. Now an assistant professor of political science in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, Fraga conducts research on voter behavior, including who votes and who doesn’t, how voting rates vary, and what influences voter turnout.

The research focus made Fraga a natural candidate to help lead IU Bloomington’s participation in the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, a national initiative to increase voter participation by college students. Along with IU’s Political and Civic Engagement program Director Sandra Shapshay and Associate Director Lisa-Marie Napoli, he is a founding member of the steering committee for the IU Bloomington challenge.

“On college campuses there’s a real opportunity to tie the educational and research mission of the university to the mission of creating the citizens of tomorrow,” Fraga said. “To me, that’s an important role for universities to play. And it happens to connect with my research.

Generally speaking, he said, research shows that more highly educated people vote at higher rates than less educated people; wealthy people vote at higher rates than poor people; and whites vote at higher rates than racial and ethnic minorities.

But college students and others in the 18-to-24 age group have by far the lowest voting rates, regardless of other factors. In presidential elections, about 40 percent of them vote, compared to 60 percent of the general population. In the 2014 election, fewer than one in five 18-to-29-year-olds voted, a record low.

“Young people vote at very, very low rates, despite having relatively high levels of education,” Fraga said. “Even though they are aware of politics, especially at the national level, they don’t turn out to vote. It’s an interesting puzzle.”

It’s common to hear the argument that young adults don’t vote because they aren’t yet engaged in civic life: They don’t follow the news and they don’t think politics affects them. Some even say the young lack a sense of civic duty, something they may gain as they get older and put down roots.

But Fraga thinks there’s more to it than that. He points out that students are busy, and their lives are often unsettled. Many IU Bloomington students are new to the community, not yet familiar with local issues but removed from their home-town politics. They may move every year, adding to the difficulty.

“Before voting, you have to go through a series of steps that may be unfamiliar to students,” Fraga said. “You have to register to vote. You have to find the documents you need to register and find out where you go to register.”

The All In Campus Democracy Challenge seeks to overcome those institutional barriers by conducting registration drives and disseminating information on how to register and how to vote. As part of the initiative, the Political and Civic Engagement program’s Student Leadership Council will organize an Oct. 12 Walk2Vote party followed by weekly walks to the polls for early voting.

Organized efforts to mobilize groups of voters are nothing new -- they’re what political parties do all the time. And according to Fraga’s research, they are an important explanation of voter behavior.

Using large data bases of voter files and demographic information, he conducts statistical analyses to answer questions about voting. For example, how does racial or ethnic identity influence whether people vote? How does the demographic or party make-up of a congressional district have an impact on who votes and who runs for office?

Results suggest that targeting by candidates and campaigns make a big difference.

For example, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans have historically voted at much lower rates than whites in presidential elections. But in 2008 and 2012, African Americans voted at high rates. Did they turn out for Barack Obama, the first black candidate for a major party?

Fraga’s analysis of district-by-district voting patterns suggested a different story: that Democratic campaigns targeted get-out-the-vote efforts to areas with high concentrations of African Americans.

“African American voters are key to Democratic victory, so they’ve getting mobilized,” he said. “This is a story we’ve known for a long time, which is that candidates do what they need to do in order to win.”

The All In Campus Democracy Challenge will generate new information for Fraga’s research and a chance to examine whether a nonpartisan registration and voting drive can make a difference in the historically low rates of student voting. For IU Bloomington, the challenge includes a goal of having 50 percent of students turn out to vote for the Nov. 8 election.

 “It’s important to understand that all these efforts are not geared to telling students to vote a certain way, or even that they should vote,” Fraga said. “It’s really about making sure they have the option.”

The All In Campus Democracy Challenge aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.

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