As an associate professor of public policy and president of her local League of Women Voters group, Kristin Goss studies how engaged citizens influence public policy. This semester, some of her students are exploring the flip side of the equation: how public policies affect citizen engagement.
Through a project with Democracy NC, a Durham-based advocacy organization, students in Public Policy 301, “Political Analysis for Public Policy,” are researching voters’ attitudes toward, and experiences with, North Carolina’s new voting law. The measure prohibits same-day voter registration and rejects ballots cast outside the voter’s home precinct.
“We are focusing on voters’ knowledge of the law and the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding those two key provisions,” said Goss, “and on how the battle over the law might have affected people’s decision to vote.”
Students designed a survey and administered it at the two Durham polling locations that serve most Duke students. Questions included, “What are the key provisions of the new law?”; “How do you feel about them?”; and “Were you able to vote today, or were you affected by the new law?”
Students will then analyze their data and present them to Democracy NC and other civic groups across the political spectrum, said Goss. Democracy NC focuses on increasing voter turnout and expanding the public’s input into the political process through campaigns, training, and research.
The voting law, signed by Governor Pat McCrory in August 2013, is phased in over time. Besides this year’s elimination of same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, the law will require voters to show a photo ID at the polls starting in 2016. Proponents claim the law prevents voter fraud, while opponents claim it suppresses voter turnout. “Moral Mondays,” a series of protests outside the state legislature, began in mid-2013 to protest the law, as well as other Republican-backed measures.
The project is part of the Hart Leadership Program’s Research-Service Learning (RSL) Pathway, which uses research projects to introduce Public Policy students to service with community partners.
The RSL program provides faculty members with an outlet to help students understand themes covered in class while taking ownership over a project. Goss said she hopes the project shows students how public policies can affect active citizenship.
“Our goal is for students to understand, in a kick-in-the-gut way, how policy shapes people’s sense of political inclusion and participation. We also hope that students will connect the principles they learn in class to the “a-ha” moments they have during their service, and then be able to turn those connections into actionable recommendations for our community partners,” said Goss.
Those “a-ha” moments have been diverse. In past projects, students have seen the effect of different policies on refugees and immigrants while working with groups serving those populations – a project that other students in her class are doing again this year. Several years ago, Goss’ students investigated reasons behind the unnecessarily high rate of euthanasia of healthy animals in the Triangle and uncovered cultural objections that were actually increasing animal populations.
Goss notes that while this project is more politically focused than others, it is still non-partisan.
“The way it loops into the class, these are not political assignments. We aren’t putting students into advocacy or electioneering,” said Goss.
Instead, the project ties into concepts covered in class, like understanding the different factors that strengthen or weaken interest groups. It also relates to policy feedback, or how policy design affects whose voices matter in political debates.
Goss’s own personal work relates, as well. She helps the voter services team of her LWV Arlington chapter to register voters and educate them about Virginia’s voter ID law. Recently she served as the state League’s panelist at a televised debate between Virginia’s candidates for US Senate.
Her own interest in civic engagement intensified more than 20 years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter in Washington covering non-profit organizations. Living in Washington has helped her understand that people need to work together to solve problems.
“People really need to come together if we’re unhappy with the fabric of society,” said Goss. “We need to do something about it.”
UPDATE: On February 27, 2015, Brendan McCartney, Maddy Bolger, Jennifer Colton, students from the Politics of Public Policy course, attended the North Carolina Political Science Association’s annual conference. They presented their research on the effects of the Voter Information Verification Act of 2014. Their research, conducted through exit polling on Election Day in partnership with Democracy North Carolina, revealed the difficulties that the law placed on Duke students planning to vote. Due to new regulations like the splitting of Duke into two precincts, the removal of on-campus polling places, and the elimination of out-of-precinct voting, many Duke students found themselves unable to vote in the midterm elections. The group presented to a room-full of students conducting similar research at other universities and political scientists interested in the topic.