Can cross-partisan dialogue help move a student body toward full voter participation?
Institutions can increase students' intentions to vote by facilitating conversations among those with different political ideologies.
Amber Wichowsky is a Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.
Savannah Charles is an MA Political Science student at Marquette University.
This guest piece comes from the State of the Student Vote Substack, a weekly newsletter that shares the latest research on how to achieve 100% student voter participation.
Young voters matter in Wisconsin. In 2022, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University ranked Wisconsin one of the top states where young voters had the greatest opportunity to influence election results.
One reason is that the state has competitive elections. Since 2000, Wisconsin has had three presidential elections decided by less than a single percentage point! Statewide races for U.S. Senate, Governor, and State Supreme Court are similarly hotly contested.
Another reason is that Gen Z voters are politically engaged. Voter turnout in midterm elections on our campus increased 15 percentage points between 2014 and 2018; turnout was up 11 points in 2020 compared to 2016. Competitive elections, which help spur higher turnout, explain some of this increase, but we’ve also seen more students participate in campus get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. Students, for example, were the driving force behind the university’s nonpartisan “Marquette Votes” campaigns in 2020 and 2022, which used best practices to educate students about registration, voting, and elections.
With a closely divided electorate, Wisconsin has also become a very polarized state. One study found that during the 2011 gubernatorial recall election, a whopping third of registered voters had stopped talking about politics with friends and family due to disagreements over the election. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a temporary rupture in civic life: 36% of registered voters reported cutting off political discussion with friends and family in the 2020 presidential election.
Polarization makes students uncomfortable discussing politics, especially with people who don’t share their beliefs.
Although we’ve seen increasing political engagement on our campus, there is data that suggest some students are finding it hard to talk across lines of difference in this political environment. In surveys we’ve conducted at Marquette, about a quarter of students report that they don’t feel comfortable talking about politics and that they must be careful about what they say with friends and acquaintances. Other results from our campus climate surveys show that a sizable share of students think that the university should do more to encourage free and open discussion of difficult topics.
Our ability to engage in good-faith disagreement is an important civic skill. Students today have fewer successful examples of productive disagreement to draw upon from the real world. One risk of not engaging counterarguments and different perspectives is that we end up making poorer arguments ourselves. We also miss opportunities to identify new ways to address old problems or to find common purpose around new challenges.
In 2021, we helped launch the Marquette Civic Dialogues Program to encourage campus deliberation about pressing, and often contentious, political, social, and economic issues. One part of the program is our “dialogue dinners” in which students come together to discuss a topic over a shared meal. A key feature of our dialogue dinners is that we first ask students to complete a short survey about the topic and then use their responses to assign them to tables to ensure they encounter and engage political perspectives different from their own. Table discussions are facilitated by trained peer moderators and have covered such topics as climate change and economic inequality. Our previous research suggests that these discussions can decrease affective polarization and increase students’ comfort with political disagreement.
But can peer-to-peer discussions that engage students’ differences in political thought and lived experience increase turnout and student leadership in civic engagement efforts?
Practicing dialogue can increase students’ intention to vote
To answer this question, we conducted two experimental studies of our dialogue dinners. We also did focus groups with students to better understand how we can increase voting participation, improve campus climate, and build grassroots civic leadership.
In Fall 2022, we recruited students in Marquette’s first-year seminars to attend a dialogue dinner about the midterm elections. Students were told that the dialogue dinner was part of a research study on civic life at Marquette. Students who registered for our study completed a pre-survey and received information about the races for WI Governor and US Senate as well as information about how to vote. We then randomly assigned participants to one of two experimental conditions, blocking on party identification (PID) to improve balance. Once participants were assigned to the treatment condition, we block-randomized participants again on PID to assign them to a table of 5-6 students. Each table included a nearly equal mix of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
In our control condition, participants came to the dinner and completed a post-survey before the dinner dialogue began. In our treatment condition, students participated in the dinner dialogue and then completed the post-survey at the end of the event. Both the pre-survey and post-survey included questions about intention to vote, willingness to encourage others to vote, and comfort with political discussion. We also measured affective polarization, using feeling thermometer ratings of Democrats and Republicans.
A trained peer facilitator was at each table to explain ground rules and to ensure that all students participated and that no one dominated the discussion. Over the hour-long dinner, students reflected on the issues that mattered most to them in the election and discussed candidates’ issue positions and endorsements.
We were able to recruit 17 students to participate in the program. While the sample size was not large enough to detect any statistically significant differences, we observed that students who participated in the cross partisan dialogues were more likely to express an intention to vote and a willingness to encourage others to vote.
We revised our recruitment strategy and replicated our study the following semester. Our experimental design remained the same; the only change was that students discussed the April 2023 WI Supreme Court race. We also included a battery of items on the post-survey for students to evaluate their abilities in engaging in productive disagreement.
Dialogue about the Supreme Court race increased students’ intention to vote (p=.01) and willingness to encourage others to vote (p=.04). Students in the treatment group were 35 percentage points more likely to say they were very likely or absolutely certain to vote in the April election and 29 percentage points more likely to say they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to encourage others to vote.
Effect of Dialogue Dinners
Note: Predicted probabilities with 95 percent confidence intervals.
We also found suggestive evidence that the discussion reduced affective polarization and increased confidence in handling disagreements, though these differences were not statistically significant. We emphasize that peer discussion took place among students with differing political ideologies and beliefs. Our findings are in line with other research on how cross-party dialogue and deliberation can help reduce partisan divides and animosity. Although we had more participants the second time around, our total sample size was nevertheless limited, and we intend to replicate this study again in Fall 2023 to test the robustness of our findings.
We are still conducting focus groups, but a few themes have begun to emerge, including strong student interest in learning more about state and local issues. Our focus groups will provide additional insights into the role that universities can play in building a healthier civic culture on campus, with an end goal to increase students’ skills in civic reasoning and discourse. We hope to share more findings from our research in the months to come.
We are grateful to Melissa Michelson and Sam Novey, and for the support of the Student Vote Research Network.