Voting ballot (copy)

With Election Day just around the corner – Tuesday, to be exact – Americans across all 50 states are heading to the polls, researching candidates and nervously watching prediction polls. The energy can be felt, especially on college campuses. At the University of Cincinnati (UC), students can regularly spot voter registration groups, political organizations or clubs canvassing and, especially after the United States Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, various protests and sit-ins. However, it's not just the students who are thinking about Nov. 8; the university and its professors are gearing up for the election in the classroom. 

The election offers a unique opportunity for students in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) at UC, formerly the department of political science, to look at elections in the U.S. and analyze how the country's democratic institutions function. Led by Dr. Stephen Mockabee, associate professor in SPIA, the course entitled "Elections in America" is only offered during election years. In it, Mockabee teaches his students the ins and outs of elections while also tying in current events. 

Mockabee teaches his class about the psychological aspects of voting, campaign finance and fraud. The class also always discusses the state of American democracy, how changes could be made and whether those changes are feasible. 

However, though many of the topics have stayed consistent in the two decades of Mockabee's teaching career, he also said that he had seen changes in the curriculum due to the change in the nation's political landscape. "Our political environment now is so much more polarized than it was 20 years ago when I started teaching," Mockabee said. 

This change is perhaps best reflected by the new addition of discussions of election security in the U.S. Mockabee said before the 2016 election, his discussions of the viability of an election were minimal, only popping up in regards to the 2000 election, in which issues such as hanging chads and the counting of paper ballots left some concerned about election security. Never, according to Mockabee, has he had to discuss candidates outright denying that they lost an election. 

Because of such visible, unfounded accusations of election fraud, the professor said he goes out of his way to make sure the students are aware of disinformation circulating. "That presents another challenge to teaching in class like this. You want to make sure that students are aware of what the facts are about elections and that really wasn't something that we had to think a lot about in the late 1990s or early 2000s," he said.

According to Elijah Hyman, a fourth-year political science student currently in the course and enrolled in his final semester at UC, the class and its discussions of election denialism is something he hasn't encountered before. "That's something that's new after the 2020 election. My classes prior to the last presidential election never really brought [election denialism] up," Hyman said. "I'm happy that I have Professor Mockabee for this class, and maybe a different professor would have skipped over that."

The hyperpolarization that has made the U.S. fertile ground for such intense political arguments has not only meant that Mockabee has had to add news discussions to his class but also changed some that he has always had. He said that voters used to think of their candidates in terms of party identification, candidate quality and policy issues. Mockabee said that nowadays, strict partisanship has become a deciding factor for many voters. "We no longer see very many conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans," Mockabee said. "So even when I use those terms, students look at me funny. They can't imagine a liberal Republican." 

Mockabee gave the example of the Georgia Senate race, where incumbent senator Rafael Warnock (D) faces Herschel Walker (R). Although the race has been tight for weeks, recent allegations that Walker paid for two women to have abortions — despite his anti-reproductive rights stance — was widely seen as an October surprise sure to shake up the race. However, polls show that doesn't seem to be the case

"Decades ago, if the candidate had all those revelations come to light in October, they would be finished," Mockabee said. "Republicans are willing to vote for a clearly flawed candidate because he's a Republican. There are other examples around the country.

Aware that students don't exist in a vacuum and have their own political opinions, Mockabee said he's aware of what he calls potential "partisan food fights" materializing in the classroom. Because of this, Mockabee said he has made it clear to students that the class is not a forum for political debates.

Nevertheless, according to Hyman, students in the course might take the opportunity to make their opinions of opposing parties and ideologies clear. Despite the volatility of many topics the class discusses, Hyman said Mockabee effectively nips these conversations in the bud. "He [Mockabee] does a great job of being able to tell when it seems it's [an argument] about to happen," Hyman said.

Likewise, the discussions of the psychological and social impact on voters has also seen a shift in recent years — though not on Mockabee's end. With the U.S.'s long history of voter suppression targeting Black people, one that reaches as far back as 1870 and continues through today, Mockabee said his election courses have always looked at systemic racism and its effects on the voting process. Yet, in the past, students weren't always convinced there was a systemic disadvantage affecting Black voters. Now, though, Mockabee's students generally come into the class with some knowledge regarding racist voting laws past and present. "[The importance of race in my class] has increased over time. It's something that political scientists have known for a long time," he said. "But I think particularly as our awareness in society of systemic racism and racial inequity has increased I think more students are coming into college aware of those issues." 

With Election Day quickly approaching, Mockabee's class has switched to predicting the midterms. However, just because the election ends on Nov. 8, Mockabee's class doesn't slow down. Instead, he and his students will begin looking at trends spotted during this specific election before discussing how to better democratic systems in the U.S. This, perhaps, is what sets up his students for success, according to Mockabee. 

At the end of the semester, when final grades are in and everyone goes home for break, Mockabee hopes that his students are better-informed voters and have a vision for what they want our democracy to look like, regardless of whether or not they become politicians. 

"The class is about trying to make sure students are aware of the disconnect between the reality of our elections and the rhetoric about fraud and corruption. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the students won't choose to have careers in politics or law, but they're going to be citizens and voters," Mockabee said. "So my hope is that they leave the class better equipped to be good citizens. separate fact from fiction when it comes to elections."

Features Editor

Joe Frye is a fourth-year journalism major who has been writing for The News Record since 2021, serving as life and arts reporter and now features editor. He has previously interned for Cincy Magazine.