Talking Politics in 2020

28 September 2020
By Sinda Nichols

The context for students’ participation in this fall’s elections is challenging. As Nancy Thomas, Director of the Institute on Higher Education and Democracy at the Tufts University Tisch College of Civic Life notes in Election Imperatives 2020, “Voting, elections, and even democracy itself have come under increased scrutiny this year following centuries of injustices, exclusion, and lack of representation. These are valid discussions, and they may be cause for some students to participate reluctantly or refuse to engage altogether. Educators should acknowledge and directly engage these issues. Feelings of disillusionment with the existing U.S. political system are widespread at the moment, and discussions will be difficult.”

In addition to these obstacles, students will likely face barriers to voting as a result of the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. This makes it all the more urgent to engage students in specific non-partisan conversations about why and how to vote this fall.

Below are some potential ways to help students engage with the upcoming elections in their coursework, with attention to the barriers they may face. These resources and approaches emerged from the Teaching and Learning about Elections at Carleton working group led by co-chairs Al Montero, Associate Dean of the College, Director of Advising, Frank B. Kellogg Professor of Political Science and Sinda Nichols, Director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement. The group includes Sean Leahy, Reference & Instruction Librarian for Social Sciences; Krissy Lunz Trujillo, Visiting Instructor in Political Science; and Serena Zabin, Professor of History, Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship, Chair of History. Katie Lewis, Cataloging and Government Documents Librarian, leads the broader election engagement coalition at Carleton in partnership with Sinda Nichols. In coordination with staff, faculty, and students in two additional working groups, we hope to create space for student discussion about voting through the lenses of discipline, social issues, and positionality. We recognize this as a one part of a larger project that ought to extend beyond elections.

How can we support discussion and critical inquiry regarding disillusionment about voting, with attention to race and positionality?

  • Students could explore voter suppression through the lens of their own experiences by completing Teaching Tolerance’s Voting Ease Checklist and discussing it with peers. 
  • Students could engage in a live discussion of why they choose to vote or not and how that connects to their priorities for our society using Living Room Conversations’ To Vote or Not to Vote discussion guide.
  • Students could reflect on Stacey Abrams’ opening convocation through discussion or writing on these questions addressing polarization, voting rights, and work across lines of difference.
  • Students could attend Mindy Romero’s convocation on “The Power of the Youth Vote” on October 16 and reflect via writing or discussion prompts. Contact to receive the prompts when they become available. 

How can (and why should) we expand political conversations beyond courses or spaces where they might already occur?

  • Regardless of discipline, communicating with students about voting can be understood as part of fulfilling Carleton’s mission to to prepare graduates “to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges.”
  • Faculty could discuss how their discipline or course content is implicated by the upcoming elections, both local and national. For example:
    • Choose one local election taking place this November. How would one of the themes addressed in this course be influenced by the outcome of the election? For example: How does the school board, county commissioner, or city council influence sustainability, immigration, or housing, labor issues, the right to human dignity for all in our community, etc? 
    • Why did Scientific American choose to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time in its history? 
    • Public funding is contingent on the outcomes of elections. How has the research and knowledge that undergirds this course been funded, directly and indirectly, through public and private sources? 
    • What lines of inquiry are important to the future for our field and how are they influenced by the availability of public funding? 

How can we minimize information barriers to participation in local elections? 

  • Students can become informed about local elections by crafting questions related to course content for candidates participating in the League of Women Voters’ non-partisan local candidate forums:
    • Guidelines and information for submitting candidate questions to the forum are here.
    • When and where: September 26 and October 3 with a 9:00–10:00 a.m., 10:30–11:30 a.m. and 1:00–2:00 p.m. forum on each day, over Zoom.  
    • Races: Northfield Mayor, City Council (at-large, Ward 2, Ward 3), Northfield School Board, MN House (20B and 58B), MN House (20 and 58), Rice County Commissioner District 1.
    • Also see the 2018 Northfield Voter Turnout & Ballot Roll-Off Trends among Students, by Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Melanie Freeze.

How can we ensure students understand the mechanics of absentee voting, should they wish to vote that way? 

For information on voting mechanics, see the CCCE website. With questions, contact Sinda Nichols at