A&S Students Observe Voting Process for National Research Project

By Gail Hairston

Emily Boulieu's honors class observed Fayette County polling locations as part of a national research project.

For most of the University of Kentucky students observing Lexington’s polling places on Election Day, it was their first experience engaged in the nation’s electoral process. They were taking part in a nationwide review of the voting process, led by Associate Professor of Comparative Politics Emily Beaulieu.

Some students came away with indelible memories.

Eric Bingham noted a young immigrant, obviously voting for her first time with her eyes brimming with tears and pride. “To see the joy she had and the pride she took in voting, made me very proud of my country,” he said.

Those standing in line, waiting, also caught Bingham’s attention. Teenagers voting for the first time stood next to individuals who had voted for decades.

“I definitely gained a greater understanding of our voting process as a whole,” he said, “and this knowledge is something I will keep with me forever.”

The varying lengths of the lines in the four different precincts she observed fascinated another UK honors student. “Line length is a very strong determinant to whether people that are inclined to vote actually do,” explained Emily Dunlap.

“It would be interesting to see what, if any, factor wealth of the neighborhood has on line length and wait time,” she said. “If, before taking part in this project, I had experienced a line that was over 30 minutes, there is a high probability that I would have decided not to vote. The dedication and persistence, however, of so many voters on Election Day just made it clear to me as a young voter how much each individual ballot counts.”

Another student, Lauren Dietz, was also amazed at the varying lengths of lines throughout the city. Some waits were a matter of a few minutes, others an hour or longer. “I have a much better understanding of the voting process after this experience,” she said. “I was surprised at how smooth the process was overall and by how nice and energetic the poll workers were all day.”

As America chose its newest leaders on Tuesday, Beaulieu organized 22 UK students, all enrolled in her 2016 election honors class, to observe the process of voting at randomly selected polling locations across Fayette County. UK was one of 30 universities across the country participating in the project, directed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).  

The project was designed to investigate: 1) the quality of polling places, i.e. accessibility, safety, location, etc., and 2) how long it takes people to vote and how long they must wait in line. The sanctity and privacy of the actual voting booth was never violated.

“Even if some voters somewhere might worry about it, I think most people will see this as a good thing — University of Kentucky students working to make democracy better in Fayette County,” Beaulieu said about her current project.

Lauren Dietz, Eric Bingham and Emily Dunlap (l-r) observed polling places in Fayette County for a national research project.

Led by Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, the project sought to gather data that can help scholars and policy makers understand the factors that affect the quality of polling locations, line length and voting times.  

Since 2001, Stewart has been a member of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, a leader in research efforts to apply scientific analysis to questions about election technology, election administration and election reform. This particular project was inspired by research that has found systematic differences in the quality of polling locations (such as their accessibility and knowledgeability of poll workers) as well as line lengths and voting times, with quality tending to be lower and wait times longer in lower income areas with larger minority voting populations. 

So far, however, most of this research has focused on polling locations in a single city or state. This year’s project is the first to gather systematic data from over 20 locations across the country, to help understand why voting runs more smoothly in some places than others, with the ultimate goal of making voting accessible for every American citizen. The data gathered by UK students, supervised by Beaulieu, will be added to data from across the country, as well as shared with the Fayette County Clerk.

“From a national perspective it is important for us to understand the very basic features of our elections, because we think they have important implications for democracy,” Beaulieu said.

“Everyone who wants to cast a vote needs to be able to. We saw some troubling trends during primary season, in Arizona, for example, where lines got so long that people were leaving rather than casting a ballot,” she said.

“Other research has shown that lower-quality polling locations tend to be concentrated in areas where the voters are disproportionately from low-income and minority groups,” Beaulieu said. “It violates basic principles of democratic fairness if some of our citizens get a ‘better,’ more accessible version of democracy than others.”

During the summer, Beaulieu secured permission from the Fayette County Clerk to proceed with the project. The clerk “generously” granted “media” classification to the participating students, allowing them to intimately observe the voting process, much as members of the news media and partisan “challengers” are allowed in the polling areas, said Beaulieu. Poll workers were alerted beforehand to enable them to assure any concerned voter that the students were present only to observe and record the voting process, much as a working reporter might. While working as observers, the students were prohibited from engaging in conversation — beyond the simplest of explanations — with anyone and everyone on site.

The student observers received training from the research team as well as from the county clerk's office to be sure they knew what was expected of them, both in terms of research protocol and Fayette County's election laws. Each of 11 teams of two student researchers visited four Fayette County polling locations throughout Election Day. With random sampling techniques used to select the locations, the project will provide detailed data locally and nationally on what happened at 44 polling locations throughout Fayette County.

“The research my students are doing will help the county identify trends in service provision — information that they can use to understand what they are doing well in terms of election administration and what they can do better,” Beaulieu explained as she prepared to lead a lengthy class discussion of the students’ experiences.

Both UK students and researchers will benefit, according to Beaulieu. The students involved received firsthand experience conducting research, collecting original data and collaborating as part of a national research project. UK will receive access to all the project data collected across the country and will be involved in scholarly research projects and publications that result from the endeavor. Most importantly, UK connected students and the community, showing how research can have a meaningful impact on the lives of citizens in Lexington.

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue


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