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Mathematics Professor Peter OttoMathematics Professor Peter Otto

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Elections: More than Just Politics

The class of 23 students in Eaton Hall jotted notes as Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury outlined the state's unique vote-by-mail system.

"Oregon is still the only state where 100 percent of our elections use vote by mail," he told them. "It isn't that complicated; it's really just absentee voting on a larger scale. It boosts confidence in the state's electoral system. Elections are the way the public grants government the power to govern, and when the public loses confidence in the election system, the public loses confidence in the legitimacy of the government itself."

It was the first of many lessons for students this fall in a new course, "Elections 2008." As the country heads toward the November election, the students will hear from mathematicians, a historian, political scientists, a computer scientist and the dean of Willamette's MBA program.

What's going on here? Math, business and science professors teaching about politics?

Definitely, says Peter Otto, who teaches mathematics and organized the class with assistance from Politics Professor Richard Ellis. He says there's no better way to explore all the facets of an election than to invite people from multiple disciplines to lead the discussion. Otto got the idea from a similar class held at his previous university during the 2004 election.

"A couple of my colleagues there in the math department participated, and that was one of the parts that appealed to me," he says. "I think this is a great way to educate the community about the upcoming election, but it's also an opportunity to have an interdisciplinary activity that involves different parts of the campus. We're across the street from the state Capitol, so Willamette seems like a perfect venue for this class."

During the semester, mathematicians will reveal the math behind voting theory, a politics professor will talk about women running for office, the dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management will address campaign finance, and a computer science professor will demystify electronic voting machines. Also on the agenda: the founder of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon discussing voter reform, a history professor analyzing election systems in other countries, and three state representative candidates giving a first-hand account of the campaign process.

The interdisciplinary nature of the discussion also is reflected among the students, whose majors include economics, international studies, anthropology, art, history, rhetoric and media studies, politics, French and Spanish. Their diverse backgrounds led them to ask Bradbury a wide array of questions, including whether he thought vote by mail could be implemented nationwide.

"I think it could work," he said. "I think it fits with 20th century lifestyles, and those lifestyles are the same in Pennsylvania as they are in Portland."

Otto invites anyone on campus interested in the election to sit in on his class. "Elections 2008" meets Wednesdays, 4-5:30 p.m., in Eaton 209. View the entire speaker schedule.