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Campus Spotlight: Missouri Western State University Gets Political

By Joanne Katz and David Tushaus, Missouri Western State University

Introduction: At Missouri Western State University we use a variety of ways to involve students in elections.  This includes activities in an upper level honors election law class, a freshman level Introduction to Law class, as well as recruiting students who are not in these classes. For the students in the classes, these activities qualify as the best kind of service learning, where students work in the community in a way that is related to the subject they are studying. We ask the students to create their own plans to register or educate voters and then carry it out, or work in the polls on election day. This has proven to be an effective way to teach critical thinking skills, foster civic engagement, and meet the needs of American democracy for increased citizen involvement. Though taught through law courses, these service learning activities can be used by a number of disciplines, including political science, history, and social work.

Voter education: The campus educational campaign in 2010 focused on the open seat in the Missouri United States Senate race. The students’ goal was to display information about each candidate that would be important to fellow students, such as education and health care. The students found it difficult to find credible sources. Candidates listed their platforms on their websites, but our students looked at other sources to find the candidates’ true stance. One student wrote “I felt that it was a good way to become an informed citizen, while creating a way to educate others. I learned more about each of the candidates than I would have if I just looked at the candidate I support. I was forced to look at both sides of the issue and think about which side I agreed with more.”

Voter registration: This year voter registration was more challenging for our students than it had been for the Presidential campaign in 2008. Many students were already registered, others less interested in the midterm elections. Registration efforts focused on college students to try to encourage their participation. While the total number of registrations was disappointing, one student remarked that “it’s a good feeling to know that we helped to get those people involved in our political process.”

College Poll Workers: An important component of the poll worker service learning project is the collaboration with a local election authority to provide students with a service learning opportunity in the polls on Election Day. We have had great success with this and it should not be hard to accomplish for schools considering adopting such a program. Election authorities should be aware that poll workers are an important part of the electorate’s satisfaction and confidence in the process (Claassen et al., 2008 citing Atkeson & Saunders, 2007; Hall et al., 2007; and Magleby et al., 2007).  The pool of able and willing poll workers is relatively small in an election, especially in some jurisdictions, and recruiting poll workers is one of the challenges for local election officials. In Missouri, most local election officials will pay their volunteers to work election day. Since Election Day is long, we find it works best to have college workers work ½ of the Election Day (which is still seven hours). This doubles the number of students who can participate and reduces the number of conflicts with classes and work.

Studies show that integrated service learning, where students work on social issues that they are studying, is the most effective method of service learning and may improve student analyses of issues, their perspectives on problem solving, and critical thinking skills. Most of the students we have surveyed have reported that they solved problems during their service-learning experience. Most students also reported that the experience increased their exposure to different viewpoints. This student’s comment on an evaluation reflects the overall student support of the service learning component of the class “The applied learning was fundamental to the educational success of the class.  If I had not been involved in one or both of the projects I would not have taken nearly as much from the class, and think a strong focus on applied learning is essential to its success.”

We do not yet have final numbers on our 2010 participation. Those should be available in time for Missouri Western State University’s Conference on Applied Learning on February 25-26.  So far we have found that most students who participate are upperclassmen, though many freshmen have participated without any problems. There were both traditional and non-traditional students who participated all years. More importantly, most students are very satisfied with their poll working experience and would work as a poll worker in the future (see chart).

Several undergraduate disciplines can work together or separately to offer a course like the ones used at Missouri Western, including legal studies, political science, history and social work. This service-learning opportunity will also provide most communities with needed resources in the important work of administering elections in our democracy, while giving students a unique and effective educational experience. Through an Election Assistance Commission grant, we have assembled a College Poll Worker guide, which includes curriculum and information on this service learning project. You can access this College Poll Worker guide at this website or the posting on this blog, or you can contact Professor Joanne Katz or Professor David Tushaus.

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