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Capitol Insider: ECU’s Christine Pappas On Engaging Young Voters

Christine Pappas is a professor and department chair of the Department of Political Science at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma.
Caroline Halter
Christine Pappas is a professor and department chair of the Department of Political Science at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma.

The chair of the political science department at East Central University in Ada challenges her students to enroll their peer to vote.

“Instead of me an old person or some other professor asking a student to register if they're asked by a friend or a classmate they're much more likely to register,” Christine Pappas told KGOU’s Capitol Insider.

“At ECU, we've registered over 10 percent of our student body every year for the last four years and we're hoping to do that again this year.”

On this episode of Capitol Insider, Pappas talks with Dick Pryor about getting young people involved in voting and how political participation changes as people age.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and elections. I'm Dick Pryor, with our guest. Dr. Christine Pappas, professor of Political Science at East Central University. Welcome.

Christine Pappas: Thank you.

Pryor: Your students at East Central are involved in a voter registration effort this year. What are they doing?

Pappas: Well every year the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education engages in a contest to see which college can enroll a larger percentage of the students at their school. So one of the things, one of my assignments, is to actually have my students go and find other students to register to vote. And it's extremely effective. Instead of me an old person or some other professor asking a student to register if they're asked by a friend or a classmate they're much more likely to register. And so at ECU, we've registered over 10 percent of our student body every year for the last four years and we're hoping to do that again this year.

Pryor: And does that mean they're also going to vote?

Pappas: Well I should ... I would hope so. It is true that college students and basically all young people are pretty unlikely to vote. But, there's almost a foolproof method of getting people to vote. And that is for them to create a voter plan. And it has to be pretty specific. So let's say you're talking to a friend and you say, "Hello, are you planning to vote on Tuesday?" And they say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course I am." And you got to drill down. You've got to say, "OK. Well I know you have to work at 8:00. Are you get to vote before 8:00 or you get to vote after work?" And then that jogs their thinking, like makes it real.

Pryor: In the last midterm election, the one in 2014, only about 23 percent of young persons voted. That's people 18 to 35. Is that percentage likely to increase?

Pappas: I think that there probably are two things that might bump up turnout a little bit, and one is the increased interest in the issue of education. So a lot of my students, maybe if they're freshmen now they were in high school during the big teacher walkout, and they got really involved in that issue. Many of them participated themselves. And that's also an issue they can very clearly understand. They went to those substandard schools and they saw those teachers struggling to pay the rent. And so they understand how important education is. That's an issue that's very salient to them. I think it's really possible that that particular issue might bring them to the polls.

Pappas: Now a lot of voters who don't have a lot of information aren't going to focus on issues. They're going to focus more on personality and candidate evaluations. So a lot of my students during the presidential election, like their top priority for the candidate was Bernie Sanders. Many of them. But once Bernie was out of the race, the second favorite candidate they had was Donald Trump. Now if you think about Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump there's a huge difference in terms of policy distinct distinction. But both of these men have what I'd consider authenticity. They felt like ... My students felt like these these people were people they could relate to and understand more so than other candidates. So I think if there are candidates that are relating to young people, their personalities their authenticity is coming through. I think those are things that are really going to bring people to the polls.

Pryor: Is there a time in our lives when people typically become more politically engaged?

Pappas: That's a great question. When we look at young people across every cohort, like the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, the Millennials, it's true that as young people, each cohort participates less as young people as they do when they move ... as they age through the political process. So even the Greatest Generation voted more as they aged. So there's a … there's a lifetime effect there. People vote more as they get older. I think when you're when you're 70 are much much more likely to vote than if you're 18. But then each generation has a slightly different orientation to the electoral process. So for example, the Greatest Generation, they came of age during World War II. They were asked to sign up for military service. They were asked to be involved in the home front activities. And this created in them a giant sense of civic duty and civic pride. And that's something that they carried with them throughout their lives. And the Baby Boomers have had a much different connection to politics. And then as we look at our Millennials, there are a lot of students who are actually quite involved in politics but not necessarily electoral politics. They're way more likely to volunteer, for example, at an animal shelter than they are to register to vote. They're more likely to give money to a soup kitchen than they are to campaign for a candidate. So I think it's just a difference in how they're connecting with their their political world. And the contributions of millennials are not insubstantial. They're very important.

Pryor: Are young people less interested in parties? Political parties?

Pappas: So I have a lot of experience with this. For the last five years we've run our voter registration drives, one of the questions we have to ask people on the voter registration form is which political party do they want to sign up with. And I'm telling you this is not an easy question for young people. They do not want to sign up with either the Democrats or the Republicans. They don't see either party as representing their interests. If they could decide to say no party … that would be the number one choice. Independent is another popular choice. And we have to explain to them about the closed primary system in Oklahoma, how that limits their choices. If they say no party actually they end up as an Independent. And now the Independents can vote in the Democratic primary, but they don't feel a connection to either party. They feel like the parties are not representing the interests of young people.

Pryor: We're talking to Dr. Christine Papis department chair of political science at East Central University. Do you see the need for structural changes in election procedures to encourage higher rates of voting not just among young people but everyone?

Pappas: I would love to see more voting and specifically more informed voting. So if it were up to me, if I could reform Oklahoma election law, there's two things I'd do immediately. One thing is I would have universal voter registration where it's an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system. There's no reason we need to revert to these 1890s forms and trying to tell the government that we're interested in voting. It should be a given that that's what we want to do. Another thing I think the state could do is to provide a voter guide for every citizen. In some states that have mail-in voting, they actually mail to every voter a guide that describes each candidate in nonbiased terms, it describes all the ballot issues so people don't have to hunt through the Internet or newspapers or League of Women Voters voters guides trying to learn about the candidates. To me it's just sort of inexcusable that this information isn't more available. So that's what I'd like to see, more universalized voter registration that's an opt-out instead of an opt-in, and then also voter guides for every voter.

Pryor: What is your message for young people, in particular who may be considering whether they want to spend the time, the effort, to learn about the campaigns and the candidates and the elections and actually go vote?

Pappas: Well as a political science professor, a teacher of American government, I have the great honor and the privilege of teaching Oklahoma's young people about our system of government every semester, and I've been doing this for 20 years and I really loved doing it. We have the greatest system of government in the world. But the thing that makes America a democracy is the voice of the people. We make our decisions based on the consent of the governed. If people don't exercise their voices and tell the government what they want, then we are wasting our democracy. We might as well have a monarchy because we're not giving the inputs that are needed to make the thoughtful choices in our country. So I would sort of offer a challenge to people to see yourself as the citizen that we need. We need all these voices in government and our government is strengthened by more voices. We need more people, more voices interjecting their ideas into our process.

Pryor: Dr. Christine Pappas from East Central University, thanks for being with us.

Pappas: My pleasure.

Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, email us at news@kgou.org. Or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online on kgou.org and eCapitol.net. Until next time, I'm Dick Pryor.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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