Civic engagement goes beyond the midterm elections

Encouraging students to develop a civic mindset while at university could lead to a lifetime of informed participation in politics, says Will Miller

November 3, 2018
Man putting vote in ballot box

In the coming days, there will be significant media attention devoted to young voter participation in the US midterm elections.

And I, like most pundits and pollsters, believe that there will be marked increases compared with the 2016 election and elections prior. But what is equally important is whether that participation will continue between now and the 2020 presidential election.

The act of voting is the hallmark of political participation in the United States – yet significant opportunities to be civically engaged and to shape politics exist in between trips to the ballot box. And higher education plays a vital role in fostering a spirit of continued civic engagement.

Many colleges and universities mention engagement, both locally and globally, in their institutional mission statements.

With this charge, institutions should strive to develop all students as engaged citizens – and this commitment to civic engagement can also be a vehicle to promote student development among first-generation, minority and other specialised student groups on campus. Beyond helping to prepare students for life after college, these efforts will lead to a more engaged, campus-centric community of students. 

Recent research published by Campus Labs, a data management platform where I am assistant vice-president of campus adoption, shows that civic engagement on campus means more than formal participation in the political process.

Students can experience civic life across campus in ways that may not jump off the page as being relevant on first reading. Whether in the classroom or through the opportunity to join an organisation focused on civic issues, campus experiences help students to develop as active, participatory citizens.

Simply measuring student activism through voter turnout and political party activity fails to account for the holistic picture related to civic engagement on campus. Rather than looking at an activity that takes place at a single point in time, such as voting or traditional party allegiances, institutions and parties need to look at how student organisations – and their members – participate in civic engagement-minded activities throughout the year.

One can assume that active participation across time will yield higher rates of formal political participation, such as registering to vote or voting, after all.

Results of the Campus Labs study show that students are significantly more interested in joining issue-based groups than party-based organisations – even as there has been a slight increase in party-based memberships since fall 2015, which aligns with the 2016 presidential election.

Overall, political and issue-based memberships have slipped slightly since fall 2013, which could suggest that activity crested during president Obama’s re-election campaign. These results demonstrate that student involvement can shift based on overall attitudes towards politics and the politicians running for office. When young voters feel empowered, they are more likely to inject themselves into the process.

While the research shows clear differentiation in number of groups and membership between issue and party-based organisations, there are still important considerations for more traditional political actors.

Within identified party-based groups, more than 60 per cent were affiliated with Democrats – compared with slightly less than 20 per cent mapping to Republicans.

Specifically for third-party or other ideological-based groups, those categorised as right-leaning and libertarian combined for a quarter of groups.

But given how these more traditional groups pale in comparison with their issue-based peers, the takeaway for political parties is that attachments are changing for young voters. No longer does it appear that young voters will choose to identify as Democrats or Republicans and then dutifully support the issues found on the party platform.

Instead, students actively engage with issues of personal importance to them. Only then will they look at their collective issues of interest and seek parties or politicians that best represent their overall view.

Given the formative experience that attending a college or university has on students, it is essential that higher education helps to foster a positive civic engagement mindset among students – especially in today’s polarised political environment.

From the importance of voting to activities that can be carried out between elections, if students are going to learn how and why to participate in the political world, higher education has, perhaps, the greatest potential to encourage positive change.

Will Miller is assistant vice-president of campus adoption at Campus Labs.

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