The Student Guide to Political Research: How to Select A Candidate

You’re finally registered to vote.  Now comes the time to comb through propaganda, “fake news,” and the allure of charismatic politicians before hitting the polls. Who you cast your vote for has severe consequences. Unfortunately, finding reliable, non-partisan information remains a mystery for voters across the country. Young voters, specifically, become easily overwhelmed by the entire process.

During my time as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador at Binghamton University, I often asked students why they would not vote. The most common response I received was, “I don’t know any of the candidates or what they stand for.” Research is a crucial aspect of preparing for Election Day. Here are three tips on how to research political candidates before casting your vote:

1. Create a list of questions

Starting with a list of what you want to know is important. What are the biggest issues in the community? What issues are hot topics on campus? Your questions need to be both relevant to the race and your concerns as a student. If there are multiple races on the ballot, tailor each list of questions to that race. Ensure the policy areas are topics the office has control over. Asking your county legislators about defense spending is as inappropriate as asking your Congressmember to fix the potholes on your street (no matter how bad they are). Provide context to frame the questions to help candidates answer them. Questions which are too vague will allow candidates to ramble and dodge providing answers while questions that are too specific may get you a one-word response. Finally, pick only a few topics. Having only a few questions will help you assess what issues you connect with most, and what you want a candidate to prioritize if elected.

2. Contact the candidate (or their campaign)

There is no better way to gather information on a candidate’s platform than from the candidate or his or her staff members. Going directly to the candidate will give them an opportunity to provide a slightly less canned answer than what you may receive from somewhere else. Most candidates enjoy speaking with students about the race, issues important to the community, and their particular platform. To the candidate, it shows how students are an important constituency to engage with, and it gives students “skin in the game.”

3. Utilize news sources

If the candidates do not respond or decline to answer, try researching the candidates in a local news source. Local news is an important source and influence in local elections.  Many newspapers will run Q&As or host debates for the candidates. These can be valuable avenues of information. Other reputable sources are nonpartisan civic groups working on elections like the League of Women Voters (through Vote 411) or BallotReady. If you can, try to stay away from editorials and opinion pieces. No matter how much you may agree or disagree with an op-ed, these pieces are typically politically biased. If all else fails, you can always use a candidate’s website for information.

If you attend a college or university that is a part of the Vote Everywhere program, provide feedback to Vote Everywhere Ambassadors about what information you’d like to receive and how it is displayed. Each campus is different. VE Ambassadors try to strategize about what works best for their particular institution. Binghamton, for example, is a decentralized campus where it is nearly impossible to get information out to everyone. My Vote Everywhere team created miniature posters, derived from a candidate Q&A session. This allowed us to display each candidate’s responses verbatim around campus. In addition, we posted electronic copies on our website. Remember that posters, flyers, and other infographics will only provide so much information. It is important to request other reliable sources so you can begin your own research.

Weaving through the noise of information, as Election Day approaches, is an intimidating task. As the largest voting bloc in the country, young people have an unbelievable power to make a difference. It is our responsibility to become informed voters. Blind partisanship for any party can easily wield negative, long-term results. We have to judge each candidate, each race, and each platform on its own merit. Our choice at the ballot box forges the path to the democracy we want.

About the Author

Nick graduated from Binghamton University in 2016 with a B.S. in Economics and in 2017 with a Master of Public Administration. He served as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and Team Leader for three years. At Binghamton, his team registered over 4,200 students to vote, helped establish voter registration at Freshmen Orientation and worked with the Board of Elections to eliminate voter barriers for students. Nick is currently a bank examiner for the federal government and a member of the Vote Everywhere Alumni Association Executive Board.