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Midterms Put Focus on Ethics of Voter Participation

Voting sign taped to wall
Photo by Russ/Flickr
Nov 7 2018
Mike Peña

Emily Chapman, an assistant professor affiliated with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, is teaching a course next quarter called The Ethics of Elections (POLISCI 132A). Yeah, there's going to be a lot to talk about.

Coming shortly after a midterm election with so much at stake, you'd think Chapman might be holding off on planning her syllabus until after Nov. 6. You would be half right.

She says she will carry over about half of her lessons from the last iteration of POLISCI 132A. But yes, Chapman is indeed waiting till after Election Day to plan out the rest. The last time she taught the course was in the fall of 2016, and the one session she made no lesson plans for was the day after the presidential election.

"Which was kind of right," said Chapman, who can look back now and laugh a little. "But I don't know whether it would have been better for me to have planned something because the response in that class was such emotional paralysis. It was hard to know exactly what to do that day."

Emilee Chapman

On faculty in Stanford’s Political Science Department, Chapman focuses on topics such as the ethics of voter participation. And just based on current events since the 2016 election, she should have enough material to fill up an entire quarter — if not more. From the concerted effort on campus led by the Stanford Votes initiative, to all the news nationally about voter restriction in key states, the political environment is rife with ethical issues to discuss.

We dropped into Chapman's third-floor office for a quick chat to ask her to help us make sense of the highly charged time we're in now, how we move forward as a society, and how electoral reform may be the key.

Will we ever be able to come together as a nation, or will we forever be divided along political lines?

Chapman: Despite the growth in partisanship, people just don't really like their parties very much. They don’t feel attached to their own parties. They just have really strong negative feelings towards the opposing party. So that suggests that there is space for some sort of a new, progressive movement that can peel off people from both parties in favor of general pro-democracy reforms.

It's not true of everyone. But generally, more people are voting for negative reasons than for positive reasons. So for those people, you have this particularly fruitful ground for making the kind of nonpartisan or bipartisan pro-democracy movement.

You're especially interested in increasing young-voter turnout. Why?

Chapman: Voting is a habit. They figured this out by doing experiments where they try to encourage people to vote, and they find that people who were encouraged to vote in one election were more likely to vote two elections down the road. So, once you break that initial barrier and get people to vote, it's much easier to mobilize them down the line.

Then, you also have the fact that partisanship is most malleable when people are young, before they've established a habit of voting for a particular party. So, if you want the current political moment to affect people's political identity, that's really only going to happen among the young.

My hope for this election is that we start to see some resurgence of voting as being a part of the culture of young people, and recognition of this as a way of establishing your identity as an adult — to form your political identity and stand up for the particular interests of your generation.

Student voter registration workers

One of your highest priorities is improving our elections at a systemic level. What are you currently working on?

Chapman: We really need to think about what kinds of structural incentives political parties have. I think a “good” party system is always going to encourage a mobilization strategy over a demobilization strategy. This is why I favor mandatory voting so very much, because ultimately, I think it takes away the demobilization strategy as an option.

Currently, because we have quite low voter-participation rates, party strategies center a lot on the "turnout game" — are you trying to make this a high-turnout election, or are you trying to make this a low-turnout election? Do you think that you will do better if you have more people turning out because you have more supporters, or do you think that you'll do better if you have low turnout because you have a more enthusiastic base?

So, if we were to have mandatory voting that was appropriately enforced, then you basically always have the high-turnout strategy. Parties will be put in a position where they actually have to make mass appeals, as opposed to just trying to play the numbers game to achieve a low-turnout rate by confusing or demoralizing voters, or by making it harder for people to vote. That's why I'm quite convinced that mandatory voting would be a great electoral reform.

Actually, Chapman’s biggest wish is to have every Election Day be designated a national holiday. And really, who among us could argue with that?

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.