The Center for Social Development’s Voter Access and Engagement (VAE) initiative trained and dispatched 38 researchers to 20 polling places in St. Louis City and County on Election Day, November 6. Most of the researchers were students at the Brown School, and all were members of the Washington University community.
Previous VAE research found that, in the 2014 midterm election, voter registration and turnout in the city and county was lower in ZIP codes with higher proportions of black residents and in ZIP codes with higher proportions of low-income households.
The question on Election Day 2018 was whether voter suppression, intended or not, might occur during the actual process of voting: Is it more challenging to vote in some places than in others?
“The voting process can be fraught with challenges and barriers for many Americans,” said VAE Project Director Gena McClendon. “These can include long lines, voter ID requirements, changes of polling locations, lack of proper signage indicating entrances, voting equipment breakdowns, shortages of paper ballots, late poll openings, and early poll closings.”
The study is a systematic examination of the polling process on Election Day. “From prior observations, we had reason to believe that these challenges may be more common in communities of color and in communities with higher concentrations of poverty,” McClendon said.
How to perform this test? Polling places were sampled systematically. A research instrument was designed, pre-tested and revised. Researchers were trained to record specific timing, staffing of polling places, counts of voters standing in line, wait times, ratings of voting conditions and details of particular challenges.
VAE researchers were granted permission by Board of Election officials to observe inside the polling places in both St. Louis City and St. Louis County. They arrived before polls opened. In all, researchers covered 39 shifts lasting three hours each at 20 polling places. To coordinate in the field, they used a group text-messaging app, letting McClendon know when they checked in and out of polling locations, and to solve problems during the study.
CSD expects to publish a report on the research findings by the end of the year.
“While the study was on the voting process, another positive outcome was engagement of students,” McClendon said. “Many of them said they learned a lot, and felt empowered by participating in the study.”
CSD Research Assistant Jessica Bernacchi, who is working on her MSW, was one of the researchers dispatched to a St. Louis County polling place.
“Participating in this study showed me a very different side of the Election Day process,” Bernacchi said. Observing election officials as they set up and later broke down the polling places helped her better understand the amount of work and coordination required.
“It also highlighted how misinformation about voting and lack of thorough training on voting requirements can very easily cause disenfranchisement. This not only is frustrating for voters, but undermines the belief that voting is equitable and accessible to all who want to participate in our democracy.”
VAE was initiated in early 2017 by CSD Director Michael Sherraden and McClendon. CSD Research Associate Kyle Pitzer joined them in designing the polling observation study. CSD intends to continue VAE as a contritution to more inclusive U.S. democracy.
During its start-up period, VAE has been supported by CSD reserves.
“We are making this investment because democracy matters, and training social workers for democratic engagement makes sense, because social workers are in communities day in and day out,” Sherraden said. “To continue with a robust program of VAE research and student training, we will need funding support. We very much welcome discussion with any interested donor!”