Democracy Lab

The Democracy Lab is a project-based course in which teams of students devise innovative solutions to the major political challenges of our time. Working in teams of three to five people, students are expected to think critically about a particular political issue and determine how best to address it. Projects have included:

Bridging Campus Political Divides

At Duke and on campuses across the country, ideology divides some students from others. Why is this happening? What are the most effective, proven strategies for combating political tribalism? Students will take a macro and micro approach to developing creative solutions to one of our democracy’s most pressing challenges.

Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide on the Environment

Working with former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and current Rubenstein Fellow Robert Bonnie, students worked to launch a project to understand how rural Americans think about the environment for the purpose both of constructing environmental policies that better reflect the interests of rural America and of communicating more effectively to rural Americans.

Driving Social Impact Through Film

Film has proven to be one of the most powerful tools for collaboration—able to bridge the divide between people with different backgrounds, religions, and ideologies, in a way that facts and stats cannot alone.  This lab introduces students to the critical thinking and tactical know-how of professionals in the issue-advocacy space, using film and story as the primary vehicle for social change.  Develop a strategic campaign plan surrounding an issue-driven film of the students’ choosing, designed to create lasting social impact.

The North Carolina Leadership Forum

The North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF) provides an opportunity for civic, business and political leaders from across North Carolina to discuss issues central to the future of our state. The forum provides a venue for North Carolina leaders to discuss the nature of the challenges, to understand different points of view about how to address them, and to advance mutually acceptable solutions that improve the lives of North Carolinians.

Working with Professor Mayer, director of the North Carolina Leadership Forum, as well as staff from the Duke Energy Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, to support a group of North Carolina leaders who will be meeting throughout the academic year seeking to bridge the partisan divide on an issue of great importance to the state.

Reforming Redistricting in North Carolina

Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years based on the latest decennial census. In most instances, state legislatures are primarily responsible for shifting these boundaries. In some cases, these new boundaries are intended to promote the political agenda of whichever party is leading that state legislature. To the victors go the spoils?  Or should some semblance of “fairness” supersede the politicization of district maps? Students worked to create a method for redrawing these maps that most represents the will of the people.

Few issues are more timely or contentious than redistricting in North Carolina. The team worked with a bi-partisan group of distinguished North Carolinians, co-chaired by former UNC system president and Sanford Distinguished Fellow Tom Ross and North Carolina State Senator Chuck McGrady on a strategy to promote bi-partisan redistricting.

Voter Registration in North Carolina

Approximately two-thirds of voting-age citizens are registered to vote. Various states and localities favor registration policies aimed primarily at registering more citizens, while some others focus more on limiting and/or eliminating fraud and abuse. Students will devise voter registration strategies that would advance both goals. Working with NC State Senator Mike Woodard and NC State Representative Graig Meyer, as well as advocacy groups in North Carolina, they will help promote voter registration procedures that improve voter registration procedures so that every North Carolinian who is eligible can easily vote.



Spring Breakthrough: Presidential March Madness


Who were the United States’ best and worst presidents?  What does it even mean to be the “best” or “worst” when factoring all of the opportunities and crises that have benefited and befallen each presidency?  Utilizing brackets and rankings based on the NCAA’s famed “March Madness” college basketball tournaments, students will examine the successes and failures of each presidency and draw conclusions on which ones were more successful than others.  By the end of the class, each student will possess the skills to more thoroughly scrutinize elected officials—a vital step in one’s development as an engaged citizen.

Spring Breakthrough, an initiative led by Provost Sally Kornbluth and Duke's Office of Undergraduate Education, offers first year and sophomore students the opportunity to take an intellectually refreshing short course over spring break in a new area of interest, without grading pressures.

For more information on Presidential March Madness:

  • Fritz Mayer and B.J. Rudell, co-instructors of the course, sat down for an interview with Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy.
  • The Duke Chronicle and Indy Week ran stories about the inaugural Presidential March Madness class in the lead-up to the first year.
  • Duke Magazine sat in on the class and published an article recapping the vibrant discussions that took place among the students.
  • An op-ed by Fritz Mayer and B.J. Rudell published after the class walks through some key takeaways on how young voters view presidential greatness.