By Mary Sorenson, Graduate Student and Instructor, Illinois State University
Housing many eligible voters in Normal, IL, Illinois State University (ISU) is taking strides to engage the student population in the local election that will take place next month.
Last Wednesday night, the university hosted the Local Municipal Election Forum, bringing three mayoral and six city council candidates to campus to discuss plans for the community. Hosted by the Student Government Association, College Democrats, College Republicans, the American Democracy Project, Heartland Community College, and the McLean County League of Women Voters, the event drew in a crowd of over 200 community members, inclusive of the student population.
To help encourage student participation, graduate students enrolled in a Pedagogy of Civic and Political Engagement course led and participated in a local tweet-up, asking audience members to share comments and questions throughout the forum. Using the hashtag #NormalElect, tweets during the event were displayed on a large screen in order to promote participation. In addition to handwritten questions, those asked through Twitter were also presented to, and asked by, the forum moderator. To start off the night, ISU graduate student Richard Green (@RadioRichG) tweeted, “Hey everyone in the audience…feel free to express your views, opinions, and questions here. #NormalElect.” Throughout the two-hour forum, over 25 users shared over 240 tweets with audience members and candidates.
Mayoral candidate JeVaugh Martin embraced the tweet-up and engaged his audience through his personal Twitter account throughout the forum. A first-year ISU student stated that he noticed Martin utilizing a mobile device before he noticed his Twitter handle appear on the big screen. Being new to politics, he said, “It made me feel like he really cared about who showed up to hear him speak about his community.” In addition to following the social media feed, Martin later tweeted, “#NormalElect more questions for Town of Normal candidate JeVaughn Martin? He will answer your questions RIGHT NOW!”
Throughout the forum, many students tweeted questions to candidates regarding how they would engage the student population if elected into office. Additionally, many users asked questions regarding candidate use of technology and social media to engage their community. Co-chair of ISU’s ADP, Steve Hunt (@skhunt2), tweeted, “#NormalElect what about using social media to listen to Normal citizens? Too much of the focus is on messaging.” This message was followed by ISU graduate student Mary Sorenson (@MarSorenson) quoting a candidate while adding personal input, “’Having the page is not enough…’ –so true! You must be active if you want to gain attention from the community #NormalElect.” Both tweets, along with many others, provide insight to candidates that not only should they be sending messages via social media but they should simultaneously listen to the messages from their audience.
Another ISU student (@mlawler82) excitedly tweeted, “THEY’RE ANSWERING MY QUESTION ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA!!!!! DOES THIS MEAN IM FAMOUS NOW?!? #normalelect.” Her tweet, complete with dramatic effect, showcased the positive impact that social media can have on political engagement, especially for the younger generation. This particular tweet sparked a conversation among many users who indicated similar positive feelings about having their questions become part of the forum’s conversation. Social media allow students (and other community members) to have a voice that may otherwise not be heard in the political world, on both the local and national stages.
Through local elections, institutions have the ability to connect their students to candidates within reach who can become more than a name on a lawn sign or bumper sticker. By encouraging students to participate in local politics and providing multiple mediums for communication, communities of voters both young and old have the opportunity to come together as a more unified voice. Newcomers to the political scene as well as veteran voters desire to see change for similar issues such as green initiatives, local business development, roads, and housing. The use of social media such as Twitter may enhance civic engagement for a variety of community members, 140 characters at a time.