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Beyond the Voting Booth

CIRCLEWho votes, and why? When it comes to young people, Tufts' Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement has the answers.


By midnight on Tuesday, Nov. 4, the ballots had been cast and the results of the presidential election had been announced. But that was not the end of the story. After all the drama and emotion, there was still data to be scrutinized, analyses to be made. In a historic election year, interest in the volume of young voter turnout was high.

The job of analyzing the youth vote fell to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, a nonpartisan research organization that came to Tufts' Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service this past summer.

CIRCLE's area of expertise is the civic and political engagement of 15-to-25 year olds. In dozens of major newspaper articles on voter turnout both before and after the election, CIRCLE was a constant reference, as the organization that was founded in 2001 has become the benchmark for analysis of political involvement by young people.

Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE and research director for Tisch College, has been interested in the question of civic engagement and youth since he was an undergraduate.

CIRCLE

Peter Levine

"Nowadays, I've aged out, but I still think in developmental terms about how if we want to straighten democracy, we need to be concerned with those who are first entering it," he says.

The day after the election, CIRCLE released a preliminary analysis showing young voter turnout increasing by 3.4 million since 2004, with an estimated 34 million young Americans 18 to 29 casting ballots.

Youth voter turnout increased in 2004, as well—marking a turnaround from a 30-year trend—but the difference between the two years, says Levine, is that while the youth vote was split in 2004, young voters favored the Democratic side by a 2-to-1 margin this year.

"They showed a lot of muscle," says Levine.

That momentum, however, won't sustain itself. Levine says the next step is engaging young people in the passage of laws and the changing of policies, as well as mobilizing the thousands of campaign volunteers to become engaged in nonpartisan activities—including those who were not on the winning side.

A Wide Arc

While its analysis of young voter turnout generated a great deal of attention, the scope of CIRCLE's research is broader. CIRCLE has focused on issues such as low civic participation by non-college student youth and published research on topics ranging from the controversial issues in classrooms to the development of trust in adolescents. Another focus for the organization has been the decline of civic education in schools, which Levine says is provided very unequally.

"Civic experiences can be very motivating and can teach the academic skills," Levine explains. "One of the main purposes of public education, after all, is to make people equal as members of the democratic society, and we're doing exactly the opposite by saying that if you're a successful student we'll give you opportunities to learn how be an effective voter, and if you're not a successful student, we're going to prevent you from experiencing those things."

In addition, CIRCLE is expanding its examination of how the advent of the Internet and its use by young people affects civic engagement. Information is a prerequisite for engagement, says Levine, and the Internet has fundamentally changed the way young people are receiving and sharing information.

Tisch College is expanding its online capacity for enabling civic engagement in other ways. The Tufts Toolkit was unveiled at the sixth annual Tufts Presidential Symposium in March 2008 to give students a way to evaluate community-university partnerships. The site is a wiki, or collaborative online document, that allows users not only to read information but also to add documents or make changes.

Another website under development will create a master directory of active citizenship opportunities at Tufts that both students and community groups could utilize.

This past September, the Corporation for National and Community Service announced a $570,000 grant to CIRCLE to build an online community where college students throughout the greater Boston area will "pool information, deliberate, and coordinate their service and activism." The network is in a pilot program now in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts at Boston and is already being used in some classes at Tufts.

"It's developing rapidly, it's been really exciting," says CIRCLE lead researcher Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. "We're hoping that networking can really spread across the community, breaking the barrier in engagement."

With the social networking project, CIRCLE is moving towards launching its own initiatives as well as evaluating what other groups have done.

"We're getting more hands-on and getting into the field and knowing what it's like to actually engage youth, which can then relate back to how policies and educational reforms can be modified to promote civic engagement," says Kawashima-Ginsberg. "I like this direction we're going in, connecting the research with practice and getting involved with both. Knowing the reality is really priceless." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Levine photo by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Voting photos by Alonso Nichols and Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

This story originally ran on Nov. 17, 2008.