Choosing your religion
Kimberly Nalder doesn’t want you to vote stupidly. The Sacramento State University political-science professor would never put it so indelicately, though—she’s a molder of young minds, after all. But when you get to the core of why Nalder created the college’s Project for an Informed Electorate, the title pretty much says everything: Our electorate is uninformed, misinformed and sometimes even malformed. Hence, a project to inform it. The nonpartisan resource for political and government information is still in its infancy, but Nalder envisions PIE growing into a one-stop shop for substance-starved voters. During this current election season, PIE studied student reactions to the vice-presidential debate and the first presidential matchup. It also organized panels of nonpartisan experts to explain state ballot initiatives and has a number of campus events planned for after the election. Nalder spoke to SN&R about media, political apathy and which voters are the most misinformed. Hint: It’s not who you’d expect.
How will PIE affect students at Sac State?
We have some funding this year and will continue to apply for [funding] grants to … actively involve students, which is kind of fun. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to do hands-on research at an institution like this.
You conducted a lecture in which you discussed a phenomena where people who are the most misinformed are not who you’d expect.
When you look at the political information literature, it’s pretty predictable as to who knows the most. It’s people with higher levels of education—that’s the biggest factor—[and] higher levels of income. People who are more interested in politics and pay more attention know more, older people know more, and that’s been really well-established. You would think that the people who would be misinformed would be the people who are low on those scales. But it turns out … in some instances, the people who should know the most are the most misinformed, [because] they have these strong beliefs in things that are not true. And that’s because they’re paying the most attention. Ironically enough, paying attention can sometimes backfire if you’re paying attention to sources that feed you information that’s not true.
Is the answer dropping out of high school, flipping off the TV and not paying attention? Because we used to think apathy was the big problem, right?
I think the solutions to apathy are probably easier in some ways than the solutions to misinformation and divided audiences. If you’re really firmly convinced of something that’s wrong, it’s much harder for me to change your mind than if I have to convince you that your votes matter. That’s actually easier.
Because you’re building up someone’s self-esteem—“You matter!”—as opposed to saying, “You’re completely wrong.”
That never sells (laughs).
A lot of the recommendations in the lecture had to do with the media’s role in facilitating a lot of this misinformation.
A lot of the causes are media related, and a lot of the solutions are also media related. We need reporters to be, well, like Candy Crowley did in the middle of the [second] presidential debate, where she fact-checked mid-debate. That’s so rare. We don’t really have a way to fact-check throughout the debate in real time.
Do you have students coming up to you asking who they should vote for?
Not as much as I might have anticipated. I do get people asking what initiatives they should vote for sometimes. I think that’s more confusing. I have had students ask me which political party they should register with (laughs). Freshman will say, “Well, which party am I?”
It’s like choosing a religion.
A little bit!
The election’s over soon. What happens now?
My next plan is to really start building … and working on getting some grants and making better connections with other researchers at other universities and branching this thing out.
Is the focus going to be more on California issues?
I want the website to be something that has national and state and eventually local [information] on it, too, so that a voter can use it … to find everything [he or she needs] to know to vote in a credible way that’s not spun and [has] no political ads or anything. You can actually trust it.