Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethics and Political Behavior:

A Portrait of the Voting

Decisions of Santa Clara Students

by Beth Simas

Table of Contents


Voter Registration



How SCU Students Make Voting Decisions

Influences of SCU Voters


Appendix I: The Survey

Works Referenced and Acknowledgements


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.
The survey presented students with several different types of questions which covered a wide range of topics. Demographic, voting, and party affiliation data were collected through standard survey questions, where answers were chosen from a list of options. Numeric scales were used to collect the remainder of the data. Agreement with certain questions about voting and ethics were measured on a 1-6 scale, with 1 signaling strong disagreement and 6 signaling strong agreement. The ethical importance of political issues and candidate attributes were measured on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being not at all important and 10 being extremely important.
The survey was distributed to social clubs and classes in seven different academic departments. In all, 557 students completed the survey between November 2004 and January 2005, with all surveys being completed after the November 2004 elections. Although the sample cannot be considered random in scientific terms, it includes roughly 1/8 of the undergraduate population and is demographically representative of the campus. The surveyed sample was 49% male and 51% female, while the student body as a whole is 43% male and 57% female. The percentage of campus residents surveyed varied more greatly from the percentage of the actual student population living on campus, but the numbers are still relatively close. Of those surveyed, 52% were on-campus residents, while in actuality only 46% of students live on the SCU campus. Although the grade distribution of the survey shows that juniors are overrepresented and seniors are underrepresented, there is still a large number of students from each grade level represented in the sample.

Figure 1.1: Gender of Students Surveyed vs. Total SCU Undergraduate Population

Figure 1.2: Residency of Students Surveyed vs. Undergraduate Population

Figure 1.3: Class Standing of Students Surveyed

Overall, the size and scope of the survey sample should serve to provide an accurate and inclusive portrait of SCU voters. The following paper will further discuss the results of this survey. The data collected has been broken down into five sections: voter registration, voter turnout, ethical issues, ethics in decision making, and finally sources of political information. Each section will analyze and discuss the relevant results. When possible, the habits of SCU students will be compared to national trends and speculations as to the causes of deviations will be offered.

Voter Registration

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

Of the 16% of students who responded that they were not registered to vote, all but one of them provided a reason why. The most popular response was ineligibility, as 36% of the unregistered students cited age, citizenship, or other barriers to voter registration. A few students stated that they did not register because they felt that they did not have sufficient political knowledge. Others stated that they simply had not gotten around to it, with one actually calling himself too lazy.

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 to Vote

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.

Figure 3.3: Student Agreement with the Statement that His/Her Vote Counts


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.
Two additional factors emerged as having a great influence over whether an SCU student does or does not vote: party affiliation and absentee ballots. For the most part, SCU students associate themselves with the major political parties. Of the students who do associate with political parties, almost half (42%) consider themselves to be Democrats. Of the remaining students surveyed, 28% consider themselves members of the Republican Party, while only 1% of students consider themselves members of the Green Party. 6% of students marked "other" and 23% claimed no party affiliation.

Figure 3.4: Party Affiliation of SCU Students

Overall, the SCU campus appears to be more liberal-leaning than other college campuses, as the Harvard study found the discrepancy between the number of Democrats and Republicans to be smaller, as 33% identified themselves as Democrats and 29% as Republicans. Similarly, a 2004 Harris Poll of over 10,000 adults in the U.S. found that 34% were Democrat and 31% were Republican.

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.

Figure 3.6: Student Voting By Party Affiliation


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 younger voters.
No matter what the reason for the difference between parties on the SCU campus, the SCU results are not unlike national voting statistics. 2000 voting data show that among all registered voters nationwide, 86% of Republicans voted compared to only 77% of Democrats.
Still, further analysis of the SCU numbers reveals that these results are statistically significant. A test called Cramer's V was used to measure the association between the two variables: party affiliation and voting. The approximate significance column tells how likely it is that there is no relationship between the variables and that the results were obtained by chance. Most social scientists use .05 as the cutoff for determining whether or not a relationship was found by chance. This means that when the approximate significance is .05 or lower, it can be assumed that there is in fact a relationship between the two variables being measured. The results are then considered to be statistically significant because there is only a very small chance that they are not representative of the population of the whole. The approximate significance of this Cramer's V test was .008, indicating that among all SCU students, party affiliation is a determinant of voting. Of course the actual Cramer's V value must be noted. The closer the Cramer's V value is to one, the stronger the relationship between the two variables. The Cramer's V in this analysis in only .166, indicating a weak relationship. Thus, party affiliation is a valid determinant of whether or not a student will vote, but there must also be other factors which have greater impact.

Figure 3.7: Crosstab Analysis of Party Affiliation and Voting

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.


We now know that SCU students are going to the polls, but what do they consider to be the most ethically significant issues? Using the 1-10 scale described in the introduction, students were asked to rate eleven issues according to their ethical importance. Again, a rating of 1 indicates that the issue is not important at all, while a rating of 10 indicates that the issue is very ethically important. For the sake of comparison, the average rating on each issue was calculated in order to determine an overall student opinion on the issue. Based on averages, the most significant issues to SCU voters were education and human rights, which had average ratings of 8.65 and 8.61 respectively. The high ratings of education and human rights reflect the Jesuit ideals on which SCU is based. The fact that students consider these issues so important demonstrates the influence of the Jesuit emphasis on a community "that integrates rigorous inquiry and scholarship, creative imagination, reflective engagement with society, and a commitment to fashioning a more humane and just world."
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.

Figure 4.3: Importance of Issues to a Sample of Adults vs. SCU Students


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.

How SCU Students Make Voting Decisions

Santa Clara students are determining their ethical priorities and basing their voting decisions on a variety of influences. One factor influencing student voting decisions is party affiliation. The overall ranking of the eleven issues presented in this survey varied depending on the student's stated political persuasion. When all students were considered, the most important issues were education, human rights, and the economy. Both Democrats and Republicans found two of those three issues to be most important, but in a different order. Democrats flip-flopped the top two issues, placing human rights as number one and education as number two. Healthcare, which was fourth using combined averages, was third on the Democrats list. Republicans also ranked education as the second most important issue, placing only the economy ahead of it. Terrorism, which was fifth using combined averages, was third for Republicans.

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.
Another factor influencing student voting decisions is personal ethics. Again, using the 1-6 scale where 6 indicates strong agreement and 1 indicates strong disagreement, the average response to the statement "I have a personal set of ethics" was a 5.1. The influence of personal ethics can also be seen in the student responses to the statements "I hold candidates to ethical standards," which received an average score of 4.5, and "I vote for what appears most ethical," which received an average score of 4.4.

Figure 5.2: Percentages of Student Agreement with Statements about Ethics


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 to ethics.

Figure 5.3: Ethical Importance of Candidate Traits to SCU Students


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.

Influences on SCU Voters

Many voters tend to vote solidly along party lines. Yet this may not be the best explanation for the choices SCU voters are making. Despite the presence of college Democrat and Republican groups on campus, this survey indicates that political parties may not have a large influence on SCU students. First, 26% of the students surveyed indicated that they have no association with a major political party. Second, those surveyed seemed to generally disagree with the statement "The major political parties are responsive to young people like me," as the average response was 3.2. Again, it can be speculated that this disconnect with political parties may stem from the large focus that parties have placed on Social Security and health care, two issues that are of more concern to older rather than younger voters.

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

An item of note is that professors rank sixth among students' sources of political information. This is especially interesting given the recent attention to a supposed lack of ideological diversity in colleges and universities. SCU economics professor Daniel Klein conducted a study that revealed that among faculty members at select Northern California colleges, Democrats outnumber Republicans 8 to 1 at Stanford and 10 to 1 at the University California, Berkeley. At SCU, almost 60% of faculty would classify themselves as "liberal," while only 8% consider themselves conservative. Despite this prevailing trend in academia, there have been no major complaints of political bias in the SCU classroom. Still, considering the fact that 43% of students do consider their professors to be sources of political information, faculty should take care to provide a balanced look at major issues.


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.

Appendix I: The Survey

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?
____ The registration process is too inconvenient
____ Not interested in politics
____ Don't think my vote would count anyway
____ Not eligible (too young, not a citizen)
____ Other (please state) ______________________________________________

6. Have you ever voted? Yes No

7. Did you on vote in the November election? Yes No

8. If you did not vote, what is your reason?
____ Voting is too inconvenient
____ Missed registration/absentee deadlines
____ Not interested in politics
____ Don't think my vote would count anyway
____ Not eligible (too young, not a citizen)
____ Other (please state) _____________________________________________

9. Do you associate yourself with a major political party? Yes No

10. Do you consider yourself:
____ Republican
____ Democrat
____ Green
____ Reform
____ Other (please state) _____________________________________________

11. Please circle the number that most closely describes how you feel about the following statements:

I have a personal set of ethics.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

12. I think that every citizen has an ethical obligation to vote.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

13. I feel that my vote counts.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

14. The major political parties are responsive to young people like me.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

15. When I evaluate a candidate, I hold him/her to certain ethical standards.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

16. When I vote, I vote for the candidate or option that appears the most ethical to me.
1 2 3 4 5 6
strongly disagree strongly agree

17. Please rate each of the following issues on how important it is that a candidate's policies on that issue match your personal ethical standards, 1 being not at all important, 10 being very important.
military/war 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
human rights 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
terrorism 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
economy 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
education 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
healthcare 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
environment 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
crime 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
abortion 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
death penalty 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
gay marriage 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

18. Please rate each of the following on how ethically important it is to you when evaluating a candidate, 1 being not at all important, 10 being very important.
honesty 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
who donates to his/her campaign
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
willingness to take a stand on controversial issues
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
personal/family life
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
party affiliation
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
religious affiliation
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
race/ethnicity 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
gender 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
consistency in positions on issues
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
negative treatment/ads about opponents
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
fairness 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

19. Where do you get the information you use to make your political decisions? Please check all that apply.
___ parents
___ peers
___ television news
___ television ads
___ newspaper
___ internet news sites
___ other internet sites
___ radio
___ professors
___ church
___ mail
___ clubs/social groups
___ other (please state) ______________________________________________




Works Referenced and Acknowledgements

Bowers, Chris. "Improving on 2000 Turnout Will be Difficult." 4/17/05.

"Coming of Age-the Political Awakening of a Generation: A Poll by
Harvard's Institute of Politics." Harvard University and Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman, 2004, p. 12.

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:
David DeCosse, for immeasurable support and guidance
Elsa Chen for help with interpreting the data
Aleksandar Zecevic, Angel Islas, Glen Pettigrove, James Cottrill, James Sepe, Laura Nichols, Phil Kesten, and Shannon Vallor for allowing the surveys to be distributed in their classes


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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