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Democracy in the Lab and in the Field

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Tisch College Research Centers Focus on Educating and Empowering Young Voters

Students work on election map on wall during midterms in 2018

Tisch College’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) are widely known for their groundbreaking research on young people’s participation in our democracy. But an equally important part of their mission is putting that research into action. Alongside their cutting-edge data tools, research reports, policy analyses, and media interviews, both centers are engaging youth and campus organizations on topics including voter registration, civics education, and how to understand and use data in their fieldwork. In the past year, both centers have worked with legislators, activists, civic organizations and student clubs, presented at conferences, and even advised high school students in their own research and civic action projects.

CIRCLE

CIRCLE is a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement, from teens to young adulthood, producing data and reports that identify key factors in youth voting across race, age, and regions. CIRCLE’s data and expertise support organizations across the country working on youth civic participation and education. Most recently, CIRCLE launched their CIRCLE Growing Voters report aimed at supporting non-partisan youth electoral learning and engagement, including recommendations for K-12 schools, community organizations, parents and families, election officials, policymakers, and young leaders. In doing this work, CIRCLE researchers and staff members speak at conferences, author wide-reaching articles, and work individually with groups focused on improving K-12 civic education and increasing youth voting.

Occasionally this work takes on a more personalized form. This past fall, a group of students from Mamaroneck High School in New York contacted Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Newhouse Director of CIRCLE, looking for ways to understand and educate fellow students on upcoming local elections and voter registration. The students were working on a project as part of “Original Civic Research and Action,” a program that “helps students become civic entrepreneurs by guiding them as they identify needs in their community and, in turn, develop and implement community-based civic action projects with the assistance of local mentors and experts.”

Encouraged by their teacher, Joe Liberti, to reach out to Director Kawashima-Ginsberg, the students reported that she “emailed back with such an incredibly thoughtful and thorough response, it made us that much more eager to seek more information, ideas, and advice about structuring our experiments and developing our larger project. Since then, we have kept in contact with her for advice and guidance with our project.”

Their initial project sought to understand the effects that students could have on the voting patterns of their parents in local elections. After facing some difficulties in this relatively unexplored area of research, the students, with direction and resources provided by Kawashima-Ginsberg, focused on a second project encouraging high school students to vote in local school board elections with the aim of increasing youth participation. They explained that “Kei shared her ideas and gave us suggestions for how to make our project more effective and steer us in a better direction... and her advice led our strategies and messaging to be much more potentially effective, perhaps increasing turnout and proving certain strategies and platforms to be more effective.” 

The next phase of their project included texting and emailing students with reminders to vote in the school board election. “Our data from our second experiment showed that texting potential high school voters and reminding them when, where, and why to vote was the most effective way to increase youth voter turnout. The turnout for high school seniors who received texts was 16%, whereas for emails it was only 10.7%. Overall, only 5.5% of seniors voted in the election. We are still analyzing this data and hoping to make our next experiment larger and better designed.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg reflected on the project, “it’s wonderful to see young people who are passionate about democracy putting our research into action and engaging their peers. As researchers, we know from experience that youth-led work like this adds real value to what we know about what is and isn’t working from a unique vantage point.  This knowledge informs our own thinking about what still needs to happen to support the next generation of voters and to have a more equitable electorate.”

IDHE

CIRCLE’S Tisch College colleagues at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) are also putting research into action with another group of influential institutions: colleges and universities. IDHE’s work is focused on political learning and engagement on college campuses. Their signature initiative, the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) is utilized and cited by colleges, universities, and organizations across the United States aiming to better understand voting patterns of students. Since its inception, the study has grown to include more than 1,100 campuses, which each receive a tailored report on student voting after each national election. Utilizing NSLVE data, IDHE also conducts extensive campus climate research, looking specifically at the factors and “institutional characteristics that lead some colleges and universities to have higher than expected political participation.” By studying these institutions, IDHE staff members help drive change on campuses through evidence-backed recommendations for campus leaders looking to increase civic participation. IDHE works to guide colleges and universities on how best to act based on their information by both speaking at conferences and state voter summits year-round and working individually with schools to interpret and apply their data. 

Duy Trinh, Program Administrator at IDHE, finds that oftentimes schools reach out to ask how they can increase participation in democracy on their campuses. IDHE works with their university partners to better understand what the barriers are to voting and how administrators and educators can work to integrate political engagement into a university’s culture year-round, not just during election cycles. Trinh says it’s important to focus on how interdisciplinary the work can be, and to focus on engaging students who are not just studying the social sciences, but STEM fields as well. 

Part of this work involves attending the state summits held across the United States, both in-person and virtually. The IDHE team presents on data from universities across the state, shares best practices, and explains how to create an action plan and goals that are unique to each campus community. Kassie Phebillo, Curriculum & Research Manager at Campus Vote Project, has worked with both Adam Gismondi and Duy Trinh of IDHE at the Texas Voting Summit. “It is so important for students who have NSLVE data to understand where they currently fit within the state's aggregate numbers... Having real people to talk to has helped some of our campuses more easily navigate the barriers they face to participating in NSLVE. I have also noticed that students and administrators are eager to talk to Adam and Duy about their individual campus reports... I recommend to our staff that they always have someone from IDHE present [at the state student voter summits]. Their insight on not just NSLVE, but equity in the civic engagement space, is invaluable.”

Working with campuses is inspiring for IDHE staff, noted Gismondi: “For [the team at IDHE], it’s all about student learning and advancing an aspirational vision of democracy. In practice, that work takes on many forms, but one of our favorite ways to engage with the audience of our work is through things like the state-organized student summits. At those events, we not only get to help scaffold learning around our data projects, but we get to really dig in and have conversations with students, faculty, staff, and other leaders in the field, including many of our national partners. Getting a tangible sense of the excitement around not only election seasons, but the year-round, long-term planning... it’s incredible rewarding and affirming to find that the work we do is having an enormous impact across the country."

Tisch College researchers conduct some of the most influential studies on civic engagement in the United States and put this research into practice to build communities and advance our democracy. Through their research-based field work and engagement, CIRCLE and IDHE demonstrate the importance of both education and empowerment when working to increase and enhance youth participation in civic and democratic life. By working directly with policymakers, activists, campuses, non-profits and directly with young people themselves, they make our research real. And in the process, they are providing invaluable experiences that help to grow young voters—and young leaders.