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Ballot Measure Specialist Teaching Student Voters About Political Process

November 3, 2006

Ballot Measure Specialist Teaching Student Voters About Political Process

Students in Stephen Nicholson’s political science classes will never know which way he votes. He encourages debate among students, but never offers his own opinions, no matter how many times they ask.

“I teach the process,” Nicholson said. “I don”t think it’s my job to persuade the students.”

It’s also his job to watch and learn about voter behavior, studying voter turnout, propositions and measures, and how voters make sense of complicated ballots and proposals.

That expertise is especially timely this year, when California has one of its biggest ballots ever.

Nicholson, a San Jose native, watched UC Merced’s development during his six-year teaching stint at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He and his wife, also from San Jose, wanted to return to California, and he said UC Merced is “a great place to come for my research.”

His book, “Voting the Agenda,” published last year by the Princeton University Press, looks at how ballot measures can influence candidate elections. He’s working on a paper called “Ballots of Punishment and Reward,” which examines how voters choose to help groups they like - such as veterans and seniors - and harm those they don’t, such as prison inmates.

Some of his research also includes looking at how California’s propositions shape the public’s perceptions of national issues; how the order of items on a ballot affects outcome; and people’s opinions of Congress and whether partisan control affects those feelings.

Nicholson said he has been interested in politics since he was a kid, and became even more excited when, in eighth grade, he found out he could go to college and become a political scientist.

Now he’s trying to pass that love on to his students, who he said are “very engaged,” and future students by helping develop the new political science major for the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts with colleague Thomas Hansford.

He and Hansford are developing the interdisciplinary curriculum and trying to hire more faculty members for the program.

And even though he won’t tell you how he votes, he said this is a great time to study in his field.

“This is a very exciting time in American politics,” he said.