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Ethics and Political Behavior:
A Portrait of the Voting
Decisions of Santa Clara Studentsby Beth Simas
Table of Contents
Although a far cry from the political hotbeds of the 1960s, college
campuses still serve as breeding grounds for political ideas,
movements, and discourse. Santa Clara University is one such breeding
ground. In the past year alone, there have been several notable
events, such as the push to make SCU a polling place and the "Die
In" which peacefully protested the war in Iraq. But what
motivates Santa Clara students to take these actions? What are
the political beliefs of students on this campus and what ethical
values are shaping those opinions? It is questions such as these
that prompted the following study--an examination of the ethical
values that influence SCU student voting behavior.
Figure 1.1: Gender of Students Surveyed vs. Total SCU Undergraduate
Figure 1.3: Class Standing of Students Surveyed
Of the 557 students surveyed, 84% responded "yes" to the question "Are you registered to vote?" This figure can be put into perspective by comparing it to the U.S. Census Bureau's November 2000 data, the most recent data available for a presidential election year. Compared to the 2000 data, the SCU figure is high, as only 64% of Americans aged 18 and over were registered to vote. Santa Clara's voter registration rate is even more impressive when compared only to the percentage of Americans aged 18-24 who were registered, which was 51%.
The most plausible explanation for the higher registration rate at SCU is education. The Census Bureau data shows that voter registration rates rise with the level of education attained. The 2000 data reveals that Americans with some college or an associate degree have a registration rate of 70%, which is closer to the SCU rate. Additionally, Harvard's Institute of Politics conducted an October 2004 survey of 1,202 college undergraduates nationwide and found a voter registration rate of 87%. As a result, it can be assumed that SCU's voter registration rate is higher than the nation's as a whole, but it is probably typical for a college campus.
Figure 2.1: Voter Registration Rates
Chart 2.2: Reasons Students Are Not Registered to Vote
Although 84% of students surveyed claimed to be registered to vote, only 69% voted in the November election. Again, compared to nation-wide data from the 2000 election, SCU students voted at a higher rate than relevant, comparable populations. Only 55% of all voting age Americans and 32% of Americans 18-24 voted in November 2000. As with the voter registration data, education appears to be a reasonable explanation for why SCU students have a higher voting rate than the population as a whole. When broken down by the amount of education attained, the national data matches the SCU data more closely, as those who have completed some college or an associate degree and those who has completed a bachelor's degree had voting rates of 60% and 70% respectively.
Figure 3.1: Voting Rates
Along with education, another explanation for the relatively
high voting rate at SCU could be the general attitude that students
have about voting. Using the 1-6 scale described in the introduction,
students were asked to rate their agreement with the statement,
"I feel that every citizen has an ethical obligation to
vote." The average response was a 4.2, indicating that
a majority of SCU students tend to view voting as a duty.
Figure 3.2: Student Agreement on the Ethical Obligation
Additionally, the majority of students feel that their vote counts. Although responses to the question "I feel that my vote counts" were more varied, the resulting average was also 4.2.
As such, it can be inferred that this feeling of ethical responsibility
and a belief in the power of each vote are motivating factors
for SCU voters.
Figure 3.4: Party Affiliation of SCU Students
Figure 3.5: Party Affiliation of SCU Students vs. Others
Despite the fact that in this survey Democrats outnumber Republicans on the SCU campus 232 to 154, Republicans are more likely to vote than members of any other party. 81% of Republicans voted, while only 69% of Democrats, 67% of Greens, and 56% of all other students voted.
Members of the SCU College Democrats offered some insight as
to the reason behind the discrepancy in voting rates. One student
noted that monetary support of college groups tends to be higher
among Republicans. Another student felt that Democratic presidential
candidate John Kerry's emphasis of Social Security alienated
One of those other factors may be the fact that most SCU voters are living outside of their county of voter registration. 37% of the undergraduate population is from outside of California, and those who are in-state residents are registered in a variety of counties. Problems with absentee ballots were, in fact, the largest reported reason for students not voting. Of the 163 students who gave reasons for not voting in November, 62 of them (38%) cited missing absentee deadlines as the reason. Additionally, many of the 34 students who checked "other" mentioned problems with absentee ballots. Eight students noted that their absentee ballots were never sent, sent to the wrong address, or arrived late. One student even reported calling the lieutenant governor after his absentee ballot arrived the day after the election.
Figure 3.8: Reasons Students Did Not Vote in November
Another factor concerning absentee ballots is the increasing number of SCU students who study abroad each year. Approximately 296 SCU students studied abroad during the Fall of 2004. This was a 19% increase from the number of students who studied abroad in 2003, and a 51% increase from 1999. Eight of the students surveyed reported not being able to vote because of difficulties with mail and deadlines due to being abroad. According to Heather Browne, coordinator of SCU's international programs, absentee voting was discussed at the Spring study abroad orientation sessions and is also mentioned on the website. Additionally, Ms. Browne sent out a reminder email over the Summer with several links to voting sites. The problem, thus, does not appear to be with voter awareness, with the overseas mail and voting regulations. Students going abroad should plan to either work through the local U.S. embassy or fill out all paperwork and ballots as early as possible.
It is interesting that despite the high ranking of human rights, the life and lifestyle issues of abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage received the three lowest average rankings. This is not to say, however, that these issues are not important to SCU voters. The average of each of these issues, which was 7.09 for abortion, 6.65 for the death penalty, and 6.62 for gay marriage, were all above 5, still placing them on the important end of the scale. The low rankings of these issues may have more to do with priorities. In terms of relativity, many people would agree that it is more important to address the basic, less controversial needs of education and the economy before tackling the more inflammatory issues.
Figure 4.1: Ethical Importance of the Issues to SCU Students
The influence of the Jesuit ideals can be further illustrated
by comparing the priorities of SCU students to those of other
college voters. Although SCU students found education to be
the most important issue, students in the Harvard study rated
education fifth. Instead, students in the Harvard study ranked
the economy as the most important issue influencing their votes.
This difference between college student values can again possibly
be attributed to the different principles motivating different
universities. The results of the Harvard study were only published
with the percentages of students who thought that the issue
was very important. In order to make the two studies more comparable,
this paper will create percentages assuming that any student
who rated an issue with a 9 or 10 considers that issue very
important. Although only four issues in the two surveys were
similar enough to be compared, the uniqueness of SCU voters
is still evident in the large differences between students'
views. SCU voters appear to have more liberal leanings than
their peers nationwide.
Figure 4.2: Importance of Issues to Students in Harvard
Study vs. SCU
Although the opinions of SCU students seem to differ from their other collegiate counterparts, SCU opinions are more closely matched with those of adults. A February 2004 Gallup poll found that education and economy, the number one and number three issues to SCU students, were also the most important issues to adults nationwide. Human rights was not an issue addressed in the Gallup poll. The same percentage conversion used above can be used to compare SCU to the Gallup poll, as the number of students rating an issue with a 9 or 10 was converted into a percentage.
The conclusion that can be drawn is that the opinions of SCU students may differ from those of other college students, but overall fall in line with those of adults nationwide.
Figure 5.1: Ethical Importance of Issue Based on Party Affiliation
The differences in priorities of the two parties at SCU generally
follow the differences in the two parties' platforms. The different
top issues of human rights vs. the economy also reflect the
stereotypes of compassionate liberals and fiscal conservatives
that are prevalent in society.
Figure 5.2: Percentages of Student Agreement with Statements
Personal ethics transfer to voting decisions when applied to
candidates. Employing the same 1-10 scale that was used to rate
the ethical importance of issues, students rated the ethical
importance of several characteristics of candidates, such as
fairness, consistency on the issues, gender, and race. Using
the average ratings, honesty was the most important trait for
a candidate to possess. Trustworthiness and willingness to take
a stand rounded out the top three, while religion, gender, and
race ranked as the three least significant characteristics related
Figure 5.3: Ethical Importance of Candidate Traits to SCU
Overall, students appear to want to have confidence in the integrity of candidates. There does not seem to be any comparable national surveys, but adults also give great weight to the moral character of candidates. In a 2000 survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, 53% of those polled cited their perception of a candidate's leadership abilities, character, values, and experience to be more important than his stand on the issues. While it is impossible to know if the priorities of Santa Clara students do or do not match those of the general public, it can be concluded that in order to win votes at SCU, candidates should focus on character issues.
If students are not getting their information from political
parties, then who or what is influencing their decisions? Out
of twelve possible sources of information listed on this survey,
parents proved to be the most popular among students, as 82%
of those surveyed claimed to rely on their parents for political
information. 81% of students rely on television news and 77%
rely on their peers. Of the lease popular sources, mail ranked
the lowest with only 10% of students relying on this source,
while clubs and churches rounded out the bottom three, each
being used by only 13% of students.
Figure 6.1: Sources of Political Information
Although the general stereotype is that young people do not participate in politics, SCU students have proved themselves to be an exception to this rule. SCU students register and vote at higher rates than average, though absentee ballots can be a hurdle for some. The importance of education and human rights to SCU voters reflects the Jesuit values taught on this campus. These priorities are also determined by the personal ethics of SCU voters. In addition, ethics influence which candidates students support. Party affiliation alone is not enough, as students selected honesty and trustworthiness as two of the most important attributes of a candidate. The lack of responsiveness displayed by the political parties has also led students to turn to parents, televisions news, and peers to provide political information. Overall, it can be inferred that a prevailing sense of moral and social responsibility have allowed SCU students to avoid the apathy to which most 18-25 year-olds fall prey; at SCU, politics and ethics and go hand in hand.
1. Gender: Male Female
2. Do you live on campus? Yes No
3. What is your class standing? Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior
4. Are you registered to vote? Yes No
5. If you are not registered, what is your reason?
7. Did you on vote in the November election? Yes No
8. If you did not vote, what is your reason?
9. Do you associate yourself with a major political party? Yes No
10. Do you consider yourself:
11. Please circle the number that most closely describes how you feel about the following statements:
I have a personal set of ethics.
13. I feel that my vote counts.
14. The major political parties are responsive to young people
16. When I vote, I vote for the candidate or option that appears
the most ethical to me.
19. Where do you get the information you use to make your political
decisions? Please check all that apply.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP!
Bowers, Chris. "Improving on 2000 Turnout Will be Difficult." MyDD.com. 4/17/05.
"Coming of Age-the Political Awakening of a Generation:
Gallup Poll. Feb. 6-8, 2004.
Groshong, Ryan. "Studies Find Republican Profs Scarce in Academia." The Santa Clara 84(9): January 20, 2005.
Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health Post-Election Survey (Nov. 13-Dec. 13, 2000).
"Party Affiliation and Political Philosophy Show Little Change, According to National Harris Poll." The Harris Poll® #19, March 9, 2005.
"Reported Voting and Registration, by Age, Sex, and Educational Attainment: November 2000." U.S. Census Bureau.
"Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2000." U.S. Census Bureau.
"Santa Clara University: Facts 2004-05." Published by Santa Clara University, Winter 2005.
Temple, Koren. "Cheaper for the Distance." The Santa Clara 84(9): January 20, 2005.
"University Mission." Santa Clara University. 4/5/05.
Special Thanks to:
Beth Simas conducted this survey and wrote
this article as a senior at Santa Clara University. She was
a 2004-05 Hackworth
Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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