Elections in a Pandemic: Transportation Access, Voter Disinformation, and the Mobilization of College Students

This past year, the “Elections in a Pandemic” Bass Connections student research team researched and implemented innovative strategies to increase voter participation in the 2020 election. While ten student teams operated in different focus areas, three in particular stood out for their work which went above and beyond.

The Transportation team, consisting of Grant Lyerly and Sanna Symer, noticed that voter turnout is much higher among voters with access to a car. To rectify this disparity, Lyerly and Symer worked to raise awareness of alternate methods of getting to the polls: city buses and Durham Drives, a community nonprofit which gives voters free rides to the polls. Symer and Lyerly compiled a list of Durham residents between the ages of 18-25 who were not registered to any political party and who had not already voted. They sent text messages with information about transportation resources to over 1500 recipients, and attached the image below to the messages. While they have yet to determine how many of the people they contacted voted in the 2020 election, they have determined that in order to equalize voter turnout in future elections, poll transportation must be publicized far more effectively.

Haley Cush, Genna Wolinsky, and Tri Truong composed the Voter Disinformation team, which took swift and decisive action to combat the spread of disinformation on social media. Given the rampant rise of misinformation online, this team teamed up with North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections to locate and tag false information on Facebook, and to get it removed. However, they soon decided that this reactive approach was insufficient, as fake news proliferates faster than even the most dedicated fact checkers can identify and remove it. After working to remove numerous posts in real time, the team switched to an educational model, creating graphics such as the one below to inform the public about how to identify misinformation and what to do when they find it. Social media and misinformation are here to stay, so informing the public about how to navigate it is crucial for all future elections. The team would like to develop more interactive means of educating the public on misinformation in the future.

Mobilizing college students to vote is a challenge even in the best of years, but Amber Park, Ameya Rao, and Jamael Smith rose to the task. They sought to increase access to voting information in collaboration with the student organization Duke Votes by using the power of relational organizing. Recognizing that the 2020 election would be many first-years’ first elections, the Mobilizing College Students team organized residential assistant-led “field trips” for first-year students to visit the Karsh Alumni Center, which was a polling place during Early Voting. This strategy made use of existing systems of relational networks (first-year residents and resident assistants) to reach a wide variety of first-year students, which was especially important as other traditional forms of interpersonal connection have been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. To target students with pre-existing connections, the team also ran a table near the Karsh Alumni Center exit, asking early voters to reach out to their friends and encourage them to vote. Even when there isn’t a pandemic, relational organizing is a useful strategy to increase voter turnout, and this group hopes to optimize their outreach to determine how best to use personal social networks to engage voters.

The Bass Connections program, Duke’s signature student research program, is designed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside world, allowing students to engage in innovative research through yearlong project teams, one-semester courses, and summer projects. Learn more about Bass Connections at their website.

You can also view the student presentations here: