Educating for the 2020 Election: A Call for Immediate Action

In a year of crisis moments, election day 2020 is now only four weeks away. This high-stakes election is converging with a global pandemic, heightened awareness of social injustice, and financial tumult. With declining enrollments, frozen salaries, and migrations to online learning, the truth is that the 2020 election is damned inconvenient for educators.

But, with apologies, I am asking overwhelmed institutional leaders, faculty, and staff to do whatever it takes to prioritize student political learning and participation in democracy for the following few weeks, despite the competing demands on your time. It’s not too late to act.

The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), which I direct, is home to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), the nation’s largest study of college student voting. In both the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, around 77 percent of students registered to vote, a rate commensurate with the general public.

Not enough students, however, follow through by voting. While most Americans who are registered to vote (around 83 percent) actually turn out to vote, with students, the number is only 69 percent in a presidential election and a little more than half in a midterm. Closing that gap requires campuses to act between the time students register and the time they vote—in other words, now.

First, campuses need to address technical barriers to voting. The nation’s decentralized voting systems beget unnecessary confusion, extreme inconvenience, and suppression. To address these challenges, IDHE urges campuses to help students understand voting mechanics and guide them as they register to vote and request, deliver, and track their ballots. Campuses can task student groups with generating, updating, and disseminating this information to faculty and students across disciplines.

Second, campuses must increase democratic learning across disciplines. IDHE’s research finds that politically engaged campuses have pervasive habits of “talking politics” in the classroom and beyond. As we outline in our published recommendations, Election Imperatives 2020, this election provides myriad opportunities for political discussion and learning that are too good to pass up.

All disciplines can examine relevant issues in this election, and all students, regardless of their chosen profession, need to grapple with big questions that illustrate what’s at stake for the future and health of US democracy. Below, I outline several sets of questions that faculty and student groups can integrate into classroom activities and cocurricular events. While each set could lend itself to an entire class period (and, in many cases, a whole course), or could simply be shared with students to explore on their own time, the point is to raise awareness and engagement in critical issues and concerns surrounding the election.

1. What is the best approach to addressing a nationwide health crisis? Which level(s) of government are in the best position to make policy choices: national, state, local, or some combination? What is the role of science in public health policy? How do we ensure the public has access to science-based recommendations?

2. What policies and practices need to change to stop racial injustice in community policing? Who is in the best position to make that decision: local, state, or federal governments? Are current attitudes about race the outcome of individual biases, longstanding structural inequalities, or both? How should educators support antiracism in society and on campus?

3. What is the best process for choosing US Supreme Court justices? Is the current process (a presidential nomination, confirmation by the US Senate) fair? How important is an independent judiciary, and if it is important, how can partisanship be removed from the selection process? Is there a cut-off date during an election year for making these lifetime appointments?

4. What constitutes a “free and fair” election? What is the history of voting rights in the United States?  How do US voting rates compare with rates in other established democracies? Where is the line between extreme inconvenience to cast a vote and intentional suppression? How does voting affect representation and policy choices?

5. What will happen on election day and the following days, weeks, and months? How do we prevent voters from feeling “robbed”? What needs to happen on campus to plan for different election results? How do we prepare for “the morning after”?

6. How do we explain white nationalism in the United States? What economic, social, and political conditions give rise to hate groups in any society? Is domestic terrorism a significant problem in the United States? Should campus communities censor or rebuke hate speech? How do campus community members balance expressive freedoms and maintaining inclusive and welcoming conditions for student learning?

7. What is the appropriate balance between individual freedoms and social responsibility? What responsibilities do we have toward people in our communities, state, the nation, and the globe? How do we instill in people a sense of shared responsibility for each other’s success and well-being? What public issues (e.g., climate change, tax policy) hang on the balance between individual rights and social responsibility?

8. Is “character” important in judging the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate? What are the attributes of a candidate with character? Does “likeability” matter? What matters more: ethics or effectiveness?

9. Is the US “grand experiment” in democracy failing or thriving? What are the warning signs of authoritarianism? What are the attributes, principles, and practices of a strong democracy? How do we assess the state of democracy at this time?

10. How secure is academic freedom? What is the campus climate for discussing political issues? What pressure do academics face to be “neutral,” as opposed to being critical scholars? What is the role of standards of evidence and truth in educating for a strong democracy?

Nancy Thomas is the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life.

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