Thesis focuses on why students do and don’t vote

Elizabeth Kelleher of Milford, fascinated by voting patterns but frustrated by researchers’ focus on why young people don’t vote, immersed herself in a research study of college students who do vote as she completed her studies at Suffolk University.

The resulting thesis, which examines the cultural factors that influence college student voter turnout in presidential elections in San José, Costa Rica and in Boston, won the Best Paper Award at Suffolk University’s Fifth Annual Department of Government Student Research Conference.

Kelleher then headed to Chicago to present her “College Voter Turnout” thesis at the 21st Annual Illinois State University Conference for Students of Political Science. She was one of three undergraduates to win a 2013 Pi Sigma Alpha Best Paper Award. Her paper will be published in Critique, Illinois State University's student journal of politics.

“People would only talk about why young people don’t vote; there was nothing in the academic literature on why they do vote,” said Kelleher, who graduated magna cum laude in May with a bachelor of arts degree as a dual international affairs and Spanish major.

“If we don’t understand why people vote, we won’t understand how to motivate those who don’t,” said Kelleher, whose passion for civic engagement was first awakened through a high school civics course and strengthened through volunteer work in the 2008 presidential election.

She found that students in both countries who vote do so because of concern about specific issues and because they believe it is their civic duty.

"This research shows that ... if college students are made aware of issues and topics that are relevant to their lives they are more likely to vote," wrote Kelleher.

Kelleher spent three months conducting research in Costa Rica, where her fluency in Spanish served her well. She did additional research while in residence at Suffolk’s Boston campus.

Kelleher’s international student travels also have included study at Suffolk University’s Madrid campus and a presentation of her research in Amsterdam, the European base for the InterFuture organization, which supported her research work.

Kelleher also collaborated with Government Department Chair Rachael Cobb, whose area of academic interest includes civic engagement and citizenship.

“It’s wonderful when there is synergy between a student’s and professor’s interests,” said Cobb. “Elizabeth’s thesis is so good. It’s original research not a literature review — this is publishable work.”

Kelleher aims to work in civic education.

“We need to ensure that young people know their rights,” she said.

Kelleher was involved in two internships during her senior year, working on civic education initiatives for Latino residents through the OISTE organization and helping people apply for U.S. citizenship through the Massachusetts Refugee and Immigration Advocacy Coalition.

She also was involved with fellow students in creating a video encouraging young people to vote, to be entered in a Looking at Democracy competition, according to Cobb.

“Elizabeth is a wonderful student and peer to her fellow students,” said Cobb. “She has so many talents, and that she was able to successfully compare Costa Rican and American voters speaks to her inventiveness and ability.”