Student journalists write about SOS Conference

These stories about the 2016 State of Our State Conference were reported and written by students from the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The students are enrolled in JMC 301, a newswriting class taught by Morrison Institute Communication Director Joseph Garcia, a former journalist.

The role and credibility of social media as a news outlet in today’s world

By Angelika Hernandez

Social media was a major component of the recent presidential election, with the resulting influence a topic of lively discussion among panelists at a post-election conference in Phoenix.

“The Impact of Social Networks and News Sources” was a panel at this year’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s State of Our State Conference on Nov. 16. A group of panelists, moderated by Lisa Urias, a Morrison Institute board member, discussed the role of social media on Republican Donald Trump’s recent presidential election victory, as well as social media platforms and their role as news media outlets.

“(Trump) was able to use the media in a way that I think hasn’t been done before, both in terms of access, time and even the ability to manipulate the media,” said panelist Douglas Schoen, a national political analyst and pollster.

The exposure both candidates had campaigning for the White House came not only from broadcast news networks, but also from social media platforms. Social media is uncharted territory and accessible to a wider, and notably, younger audience.

“The good thing about social media and Facebook is that the news is unfiltered. The bad thing though about social media and Facebook is the news is unfiltered,” said panelist Thom Reilly, director of Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute.

The problem that the panelists discussed was that when news comes from social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, the public has no way of knowing how credible and accurate those sources really are. Access to “news” on social media platforms is also heavily reliant on who your friends are and what they share because that content is what ends up on your feed.

“Voters are looking for news rather than them waiting for a news source to deliver it to them,” said panelist Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota and consultant to Pew on the Voting Information Project.

“They just let the platform (Facebook) promote what most people were talking about. And if people are living in a bubble, and they’re sharing stories that sound good, whether or not they’re true, those are the things that end up populating the top of your feed,” said Chapin.

There was discussion on how to make accessible more diverse stories and opinions on social media, however the idea that people want to know and read about different opinions from people of the opposing political party was challenged.  

“I wish we would spend more time entertaining the possibility that people aren’t interested in diverse opinions. I push back on the idea that diverse news isn’t available,” said panelist Eugene Scott, a CNN Politics reporter.

“What’s very possible is that there are people – and this isn’t even a judgment, this is fact – who say, ‘I want my news and my information through this prism and this lens solely.’ And so we’re talking about two different things: Can we help people get more diverse news, and do people even know if they should have it or want it?” Scott asked.

Independents bridging the political gap?

By Roxanna Ahmad

How critical of a role did independent voters play in the election of Republican Donald J. Trump as the 45th U.S. president?

That was among the chief questions debated at Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s State of Our State Conference in Phoenix on Nov. 16.

According to Jacqueline Salit, president of, exit polling showed independent voters composed 31 percent of this year’s national electorate.

Salit said the ideological split among independent voters was 48 percent for Trump and 42 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton, with 10 percent saying they voted for third-party candidates or declined to answer.

“I think it is fair to conclude that independents provided the margin of victory in that outcome,” Salit said.

In the 2008 presidential election, independents were the margin of victory in Democrat Barack Obama’s win over Republican John McCain. However, Salit said, over the course of the last eight years independents have shied away from the Democratic coalition to merge with the new Republican coalition, as seen in Trump’s win.

Trump’s ability to capture swing states such as Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania showed that the number of independents in the margins for Trump were sufficient enough to throw those states into the Trump column, according to Salit.

“Independents can also serve as a bridge between the divided present and a unified future in which the American people come to find a way to overcome our differences and work together to address the very serious problems that we have in this country,” Salit said.

Despite Salit’s claims about independent voters’ influence on the electorate, the issue of institutional disenfranchisement also was suggested.

Panelist Daniel Ortega, Arizona attorney and Cesar Chavez Foundation board member, found that independents often feel neglected by major-party candidates since they only speak to party-affiliated voters due to the closed structure of the two-party electoral system.

“What we have to recognize is that candidates do not speak to the public; they speak to particular voters,” Ortega said.

A majority of states have a closed, partially closed or partially open primary. According to Ballotpedia, Arizona law utilizes a hybrid system, where unaffiliated voters choose which party’s primary they will vote in, but party-affiliated voters must vote in that party’s primary. The exception is the presidential preference party primary, which is closed to registered independent voters.

Ortega suggested that the closed election system in the U.S. favors base voters, or citizens who vote in more elections within a specific party. Independents don’t fully exercise their views since they can’t vote in many states’ primaries, Ortega said.

Likewise, many other obstacles exist among independent voters.

Fellow panelist Marilyn Rodriguez, associate director of Veridus, a lobbying and political consultancy firm, said two-thirds of independent voters are pebble voters – or voters who cast their ballot through the mail. However, in primaries, independents must request a partisan ballot.

The demographics of independents typically point to younger generations who haven’t yet decided their party designation. According to Rodriguez, this justifies even more attention to be paid to independents since many do not conform to just one party affiliation.

“(Independents) aren’t necessarily centrists. Some lean to the left, some lean to the right,” Rodriguez said.

The potential for swaying independent voters can make the difference between electing a liberal or a conservative governing body.

“Making presumptions about political patterns in our country today, I think, is a dangerous activity, as we now know,” Salit said with a chuckle.

State of Our State echoes need for more voter engagement

By Moriah Hernandez

The sway of independent and Millennial voters in the 2016 presidential election led many politically involved individuals at Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s State of Our State Conference on Nov. 16 to consider how they can better engage such voters.

Political consultant and campaign strategist DJ Quinlan suggests that in the midst of politics it is not uncommon, and thus problematic, for registered independents to be viewed collectively as one large category.

“We’re tempted to lump all independents together,” said Quinlan, former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. “A lot of independents really are partisan voters in a lot of ways. For various reasons they choose not to identify (with parties) or for whatever reason they may have left that part of the registration form blank.”

Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, hopes to soften the mistrust that has been bred between the public and political parties. The lack of trust stems from an inherent sense of underrepresentation not only by independents but also among the people from both major parties.

“When you have this relationship of trust, it starts to become a richer experience for people. Each person lives in their universe to be successful and to make a better quality of life,” Graham said. “We try to align the real message with what’s important to you.”

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan said the biggest obstacle holding independent voters back is their low political efficacy.

 “Because we don’t have competitive districts in this state, we only have eight or nine competitive districts. Why would they vote when it’s already decided?” Reagan asked. “If we want a healthy Legislature and process and we want to say to independents, ‘your vote matters’, let’s create districts where their vote actually matters.”

The United States is largely ruled by a two-party system. Other countries with upwards of 50 political parties tend to have more sustainable and stable governments for longer periods of time, Graham said.

“When people are in disarray and can’t align with a value, they start to withdraw and become apathetic with the entire process,” Graham said.

Millennial voters required a more modern approach to voter engagement techniques in this most recent election – including social media. The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office utilized Facebook as a medium to communicate with a new generation of voters. Facebook posts were used to educate and encourage voters to be a part of the election process.

“What we learned in 2016 is when it comes to nontraditional voter outreach, especially when we’re talking about bringing younger people into the process, the days of talking to them on paper are over and have long been over,” Reagan said.

Quinlan concurred that technology has allowed politics and elections to evolve, but there are some traditional and proven techniques that remain effective.

“You can’t get past a face-to-face engagement,” Quinlan said. “Research says that it cannot be replaced. Voting at the end of the day is a learned behavior. You have to teach people how to vote.”

Graham noted that it also is the civic responsibility of the individual to pursue information about candidates and to be an active participant in the political process to elect representatives and leaders.

Political change in 3 words: Millennials, Latinos and independent voters

By CiCi McAllister and Ayrianna Drayton

Political change was the focus of the eighth annual State of Our State Conference hosted by Morrison Institute for Public Policy on Nov. 16, featuring multiple discussions about both voter participation and voter disenfranchisement.

Millennials, Latinos and independent voters are reshaping the American political system in new ways: Those who were looking for change largely voted Republican in the 2016 presidential race, even though they may have voted Democratic in 2008.

The result was Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

The panel, “How Are Independents and Others Driving Political Change?,” included Chuck Coughlin, president of HighGround Inc., a public affairs consultancy firm. Coughlin, who has been working in Arizona public affairs for 30 years, predicted independents would soon again be the largest voting bloc in Arizona, surpassing the two major parties.

Coughlin said primaries are different for independents because they must consciously decide whether to request a Republican or a Democratic ballot. “They live in a larger ecosystem. Choosing a ballot in Arizona is like choosing which ecosystem (they) live in,” he said.

Fellow panelist Daniel Ortega, who serves on the board for the Cesar Chavez Foundation and Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association, believes independents are mostly ignored during election season.

“Candidates do not speak to the public, they speak to particular voters,” Ortega said. “Nobody calls me, nobody comes to my door. Cable TV is even targeted at a particular audience. Biggest victim of all are the independent voters because they can’t vote in (certain) primaries.”

At the end of the day, under the existing two-party system, those who are not registered to either the Republican or Democratic parties simply are not going to get the same attention, Ortega said in calling for greater outreach for the independent voter.

Panelist Marilyn Rodriguez, associate director of the lobbying, media and consultancy firm Veridus, said the mistreatment goes beyond being ignored; independents are being unfairly disenfranchised.

“It is structural and at the basis of our civic engagement,” Rodriguez said. “(Independents) are the ones that need the most attention. They haven’t been exposed to the virtuous cycle. We need to remove the obstacles.”

Both Ortega and Rodriguez believe there is a rigged system in place favoring the two major parties, with independents excluded from some primaries and unsure whether they can vote in others. Also, the additional hurdles for independent candidates often are insurmountable.

Omar Ali, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a board member of, also believes the system is unfair to independent voters. He was among the panelists who said independents offer change – perhaps even as a bridge between Republicans and Democrats paralyzed in gridlock.

“I think on the one hand people are self-conscious and aware of the rigged system,” Ali said. “I still think we are in the thick of things. I really like the idea that independents play this bridged role. What you are seeing is an anti-partisan sentiment among younger voters, and every progressive change in America has come from the outsiders.”

Many people are still unaware of the independent movement and the power they can have in an election. Ali believes such dynamic change can only come from people talking to those who are different than themselves.

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the Arizona State University College of Public Service and Community Solutions, who served as moderator, reminded panelists that independents are all over the place in the political spectrum.

“We keep speaking about independent voters (as if they are the same), but by and large they are not the same people,” Koppell said.

Independents voters: ignored and invisible but impactful

By Brielle McDougall

Independents are the driving force behind major political change in the United States including in this year’s historic election, according to panelists at the State of Our State Conference on Nov. 16 at the Phoenix Airport Marriott.

The conference, which focused on “Election 2016 and Beyond,” is the annual signature event for Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

One of the panels, titled “How are independents and others driving political change?,” discussed the impact that independents have on the overall electorate despite how alienated they are under the two-party system.

“For years independent voters have been ‘the other,’” said Thom Reilly, director of Morrison Institute. “Independent voters have gone unrecognized if not outright ignored or treated as invisible by large and small research and policy think tanks around the nation and in studies and surveys conducted.”

Morrison Institute is conducting research into Arizona’s independent voters and their impact on elections and influence in social networks. Reilly said such studies offer an unprecedented look into understanding the changing electorate as whole.

“We learn a lot about Republicans and Democrats when we study independents,” said Reilly. “We learn how members of all three parties can differ from each other, how independents are similar to Republicans in some cases and some issues, but side with Democrats on other issues.”

In addition to a two-party power structure, the news media contribute to the alienation of independents, according to panelists.

“Rarely did (the news media) talk about the independent vote, which of course is something that can swing and does swing elections,” said Reilly.

Independents provided the margin of victory for Republican Donald Trump, said Jacqueline Salit, president of

“Independents were 31 percent of the electorate” on Nov. 8, Salit said. “This is the largest share of the electorate that independents have occupied since the beginning of exit polling.”

This demonstrates the extent to which “independents are driving themselves toward the center of political activity in the country,” said Salit.

Throughout the 2016 race for presidency between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, it became increasingly apparent how deeply the country is divided and how the candidates – if not the election itself – only reinforced this divide, panelists said.

“Candidates do not speak to the public, they speak to particular voters,” said Daniel Ortega, an Arizona attorney and Cesar Chavez Foundation board member who believes independent voters too often are ignored even through they have the numbers to sway an election’s outcome.

This prevailing practice of disenfranchisement only increases the partisan divide by making it harder for people to hear from all candidates, especially those who are independents and don’t fit in as either a Democrat or Republican, Ortega said.

The divide is made worse due to the structure of the current two-party political system that makes it more difficult for independents to vote or run for office, panelists said.

“There is so much about the structure of our political process that reinforces the divide and I think we have to look with fresh eyes and an open mind at ways we can form and restructure the political process to expand our democracy,” said Salit.

It’s about the people, not the politicians, said Omar Ali, a professor at the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“We are talking about decreasing the power of the parties and essentially increasing the power of ordinary citizens and voters,” he said.

Salit said she believes “that independents can serve as a bridge between the divided present and a unified future in which the American people come to find ways to overcome our differences and work together to address the very serious problems that we have in this country and which have to be dealt with.”

Ali agreed that independents are the engine of change in American history and he predicted that independents as outsiders would continue to be the driving force behind political change.

“Every major change in American history comes from the outsiders,” he said.

Salit said she hopes that the political process will open up in a way that will allow independents to participate more fully in future elections.

“(If that happens) we will have the opportunity to create a new electoral majority in this country which brings Americans together across a whole bunch of lines around which we are divided right now and find creative and important ways to move the country forward,” said Salit.

Independents are important voters for candidates to win over

By Angelika Hernandez

The influence that independent voters can have on the outcome of elections was discussed by a State of Our State Conference panel.

A panel for the Independent Movement, moderated by Jonathan Koppell, dean of Arizona State University’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, was held Nov. 16 at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s annual conference. The focus was on the impact that independent voters can have in local and national elections.

Panelists discussed the idea that independent voters need more attention from candidates because their vote can be swayed, unlike the votes of many partisan voters who vote strictly along party lines.

“A third of them are truly swing voters, and these are the ones that need the most attention,” said panelist Marilyn Rodriguez, associate director of Veridus, a lobbying, public affairs and consultancy business in Phoenix. “They are the ones that say, ‘Where are you, why aren’t you coming to my door?’ They also happen to be the ones that haven’t yet decided which party they are going to go with.”

  Candidates, nationally and here in Arizona, should listen to independent voters because they have proven to play important roles when it comes to deciding election victories, panelists said.

“If you’re looking at the last 30 years or even longer than that, it’s been independents who have been the engine of change in America. Every progressive change in America, if you will, has come from the outside voters,” said panelist Omar Ali, professor and interim dean of Lloyd International Honors College at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Limitations of a two-party government structure also were a topic of discussion during the panel.  The structure was said to alienate independent voters, who do not know where their role is – especially in primary elections – and also because most Independent voters do not primarily identify with one side or the other.

Panelist Jacqueline Salit, president of, brought up the example of Michael Bloomberg being elected mayor in New York City in 2001 after running as both a Republican and an independent. This idea of “fusion,” running on more than one party line, was attractive to independent voters because it was more structurally flexible.

“Part of the reason Bloomberg won the support of independent voters was he campaigned on the issue of non-partisan political reform, and changing New York’s election system to a non-partisan system,” Salit said.

“We have one million independent voters in New York City who were locked out of the primary process, so he had made a pledge to those voters when he got elected. He got together a charter commission that was going to advance this issue and the higher political establishment said, ‘Where did this issue come from?’ Well, it didn’t come from the insiders, it came from the outsiders,” said Salit.

The idea of a more open election structure could be appealing to these voters.

“There’s an opportunity in an open system that that candidate can appeal to all of the votes,” said panelist Charles Coughlin, president of HighGround, a public affairs consultancy firm in Phoenix.

News sources and social networks differing among voters

By CiCi McAllister & Ayrianna Drayton

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is finishing up a study of Arizona registered voters regarding their sources of news and interactions, with preliminary findings showing that Democrats, Republicans and independents frequent different media outlets and social networks.

Data from the study was released before the panel discussion, “The Impact of Social Networks and News Sources,” at the State of Our State Conference on Nov. 16.

The panel focused primarily on the impact the news media has on the election and areas in which the media can improve in voter education and participation.

The choice of news media information, which virtually separates the three parties from each another, often only reinforces the limited view of voters, panelists said.

Christian Grose, who is an associate professor of political science in Dornsife College at the University of Southern California, said a most important question to ask is: “What is the authority of the (news) sources?”

“What we are reading is not the same,” Grose noted of differing content and news angles found in various news outlets. “What we are seeing on TV is not the same. There is research now on accuracy and facts. One thing going forward in the social media age is the importance of accuracy.”

Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Doug Chapin, extended Grose’s thought by saying he believes factual election information is not as available as it should be, with too much generalization.

“The election data was hidden in the dark,” Chaplin said.

From the journalistic perspective, CNN Politics reporter Eugene Scott expressed his thoughts on the media during the presidential election: Don’t kill the messenger.

“It is funny because the election is over, because that is not how things work,” Scott said. “Different people did things different things differently. Some people did terrible. So the reality is if we really want to talk about media criticism, we need to be a little more specific. The generalizations don’t help and it is an easy way to be ignored.”

Aside from media coverage needing to be more focused on getting information to the voters, polling overall needs to be improved, panelists concurred.

Arizona statesmen: Policy gridlock caused by partisan politics

By Moriah Hernandez

Partisan politics at their purest are to blame for the continual gridlock in the current political system, concluded two former congressional delegates from Arizona at Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s State of Our State on Nov. 16.

Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat who retired from the U.S. House in 2015, recalled the change in political system in 1994 when the Republicans won the majority after 40 years of Democratic majority in Congress. He said Democrats were forced to work with the new majority party if they wanted to get anything done.

“I had developed relationships with the people coming up in my generation of being in Congress,” Pastor said. “It was those personal relationships that were able to bridge some of the legislation.”

Unfortunately politics have become more and more partisan over the years, he said, making policy gridlock the rule rather than the exception. Developing personal relationships again could be the key to advancing policy and avoiding gridlock, Pastor said.

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, said political leaders fail to fulfill their duty of educating voters, and then as candidates take advantage of the uneducated electorate.

“We’re at a point where a lot of people are willing to go right to the bottom and appeal to the basic instincts of people: ‘You’ll get everything for free and you’ll never have to pay for anything,’” Kyl said.

Policy gridlock continues, with the need for opposition remaining a primary part of politics and a government’s checks and balances. Both major parties at various times find themselves in the position of power or opposition, and each plays its role to ensure eventual gridlock.

“Whenever you’re in the minority, you have the luxury of voting no,” Kyl said. “Then the poor president and his party, the people in Congress, end up riding it across the finish line.”

Kyl has seen a shift in candidates’ approach with much more of an emphasis on appealing to the masses at all costs. Some might argue that President-elect Donald Trump is a prime example of candidates who will appeal to the public in whatever manner possible.

“Because we’ve allowed politics to get to the point where candidates just take the easiest, most populist, most irresponsible positions to get elected, they find themselves in a governing situation that is very difficult,” Kyl said.

Pastor questions Trump’s policies considering that he has failed to mention specifics on how he will handle the debt ceiling or balancing the budget – to which moderator Grady Gammage Jr. joked that Trump the businessman already is familiar with debt.

American politics have been reduced to appealing to people by being “populist, never explain anything and going with the flow,” Kyl said. That said, the former senator posed the question of how do good leaders educate the voters and use the rules that are already in place and still be successful with thoughtful and reasonable policy.

With nearly 25 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018, Kyl cautioned Democrats in the Senate to be aware of any left-leaning policy stances that could further impact their minority status.

“They’re going to have to be careful that the leftward tugs from people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren don’t further alienate the more conservative constituencies that they’re going to need to reelect some of their numbers,” Kyl said. “There is a question on how far the Democrats can depart from the so-called progressive left that is dominating the party.”

Outreach and voter education keys to improving election participation

By CiCi McAllister and Ayrianna Drayton

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan said the solution to reach nontraditional voters is simple: All it takes is “nontraditional voter outreach.”

The execution, however, can be a bit trickier and certainly must be more strategic, said Reagan, who was a panelist at Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s State of Our State Conference in Phoenix on Nov. 16.

Reagan believes there needs to be better outreach across the board to Millennial and independent voters in the future, with the 2016 election an example of what needs to change.

“In regards to younger voters, we need to meet them where they live,” Reagan said, noting the importance of social media to many younger voters. “We need to ask candidates what they think about the issues. Voters want to know the answers to these very basic questions. If you ask voters what they want to know, it is where the candidate stand on the issues.”

Reagan said she also believes there is a need for what she calls voting rights’ ambassadors in order to ensure fairness, and election officials who can speak Spanish to those whose first language is not English but need information.

It’s all about transparency, voter education and outreach, she said.

“We have to have engagement,” concurred Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. “We have to also get out the basic information to voters. When to vote, where and how.”

Political consultant DJ Quinlan feels the same, but noted: “Nothing beats face-to-face engagement.”

Quinlan, former executive director of Arizona Democratic Party, agreed with Graham about voter outreach tactics and the importance of relaying the basic information.

The panel discussion got a little heated when the topic of independent voter disenfranchisement was brought up. Paul Johnson, former Phoenix mayor and an independent voter pushing for election reform, argued that the independent voter is boxed out and receives zero information from the two major political parties during elections.

He also touched on the matter of when running for a local government position that it’s more effective to listen to all voters, not just voters from a certain political party.

“The partisan districts have to appeal for the 5 percent (threshold). Money is one of the challenges and I think disclosure is the best solution,” Johnson said.

Fellow panelists agreed that it is important to reach out to independents and make sure everyone is informing them.

Graham said that at the end of the day, independents are going to vote for those who are best fit for the job and that it’s the politician’s job to make sure they are satisfied with the outcome.

“Let’s create districts where their vote actually matters,” Reagan said, noting the many noncompetitive legislative districts in Arizona.