Elections in a Pandemic

Bass Connections students pilot ways to improve voting access during this year's unusual election.

Duke student shows I Voted sticker on Duke's campus

What factors discourage people from voting, and what new barriers might the pandemic pose? A team of 24 Duke students is chasing that question in real time -- and testing a range of potential solutions -- as part of the Bass Connections project “Elections During a Pandemic.”

The project is nonpartisan. The students hope to help more voters of all political stripes take part in the election. After Nov. 3, they will analyze their findings to gauge what approaches worked and why, said project faculty adviser Gunther Peck, a Duke historian.

“Each of the teams is piloting something they think will have an impact right now,” said Peck, who also directs the Hart Leadership program at the Sanford School of Public Policy. “They’re on fire. These students are so much fun to work with.”

One of those students, Kathryn Thomas, is monitoring how counties handle absentee ballots. A first-year student from Hendersonville, N.C., Thomas serves on a three-person team focusing on six N.C. counties. Several of the counties saw high absentee ballot rejection rates in the 2016 election.

Her team is reaching out to voters whose ballots were rejected in 2016, to ensure their votes are counted in this election. The team is also measuring the effectiveness of BallotTrax, a new app that N.C. counties use to track absentee ballots.

Thomas said she values the chance to focus on her home state. She expected the pandemic would drive many North Carolinians to choose to vote absentee – as indeed it has.

“I think there’s been a lot of misinformation and overdramatic communication about absentee balloting,” Thomas said. “As a native North Carolinian, for a while I was concerned with how North Carolina would pull it off.”

“This is one way to have an impact and also to be able to do research at the same time,” she said.

Two other student teams are developing Spanish-language voting resources, such as voting instructions in Spanish. In North Carolina, ballots are in English, Peck noted.

“You can request an absentee ballot in English, but it arrives in Spanish,” Peck said. “It’s hugely concerning.”

Jeremy Carballo Pineda, a junior from Wilmington, N.C., takes part in one of the Spanish-language teams. His group uses Spanish-language social media posts to share information on such topics as when and how to vote and what offices are on the ballot. The posts also stress the power of voting.

“Only about 55 percent of Hispanics vote in N.C. elections,” Carballo Pineda said. “They’re not exercising their collective power.”

Still another student group focuses on transportation. Some voters don’t have a ready means of getting to polling sites, Peck said. With that in mind, Sanna Symer and Grant Lyerly are collaborating with another Duke student, Hannah McKnight, founder of an organization called Durham Drives, to reach out to thousands of Durham voters who do not have drivers’ licenses and might need rides to the polls.

Kathryn Thomas looks forward to hearing what her fellow students learn. The findings could be relevant for future elections, she said.

“I think we’ll see the impact of this pandemic for a long time,” Thomas said. “We still have to have a functioning democracy within that context.”