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Student researchers gear up for Election Day

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As the Nov. 3 election approaches, student researchers at the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project are focusing on producing resources for election officials and poll workers as well as conveying information on key election dates to the public. 

The project, which was co-founded in April by law professor Nate Persily J.D. ’88 and MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III A.M. ’82 Ph.D ’85, produces research reports and resources to ensure elections “proceed with integrity, safety, and equal access” during the pandemic. 

To date, it has published over 500 pages of original research on mail-in voting, poll workers and other parts of the electoral process, as well as a litigation tracker database, which tracks the status of cases regarding election law arising from coronavirus complications.

Project lead and second-year public policy graduate student Garrett Jensen said that research memos and reports break down difficult language and make the information easier to access and consume.

“It’s a shame that so much of this information is you have to really press for and dig to find,” Jensen said. “It’s one thing to help a voter understand when your ballot is going to start being counted. But actually, I think these key dates and deadlines are more important for elections officials and the media.”

Over 150 students from across the U.S. have worked on the project since its inception in April, with most participating over the summer, according to Jensen. Currently, around 40 to 50 Stanford students across schools are working on the project through the Election Protection in the Time of COVID policy lab.

The Healthy Elections Project has partnered with multiple organizations to create products, including a continuously updated series of pieces on election administration and litigation posted on Lawfare. 

In conjunction with the School of Design, the project recently produced training videos for poll workers for the Michigan Secretary of State.

Third-year law student Chelsey Davidson said the training videos describe what poll workers should expect on election day. 

“I think those have a considerable amount of impact … throughout the country,” Davidson said. Davidson took a leave of absence this year to work full-time on this project as one of three directors, alongside third-year law student Tom Westphal and Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute Fellow Zahavah Levine. 

Students working on the project said that the research experience was overall gratifying, especially because of the opportunity for collaboration between different schools and the ability to cultivate expertise in new topics. 

Jensen said that before working on the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project as a project lead, he never expected to be an expert on signature verification.

“There’s like no experts on that. But somehow I’ve managed to become one. What a niche, ridiculous, absurd topic to be to be intimately knowledgeable about on a national scale,” Jensen said.

Emily Handsel ’23 worked on generating state-specific memos for Florida and researching youth poll worker recruitment and training. She also worked on a design team to produce a booklet on best practices for signage and setting up polling locations.

“I’m going to go vote in person and I might be able to see some of our signage, or some of our design features, featured in my own polling station,” said Handsel, who is from Florida. “It was really cool to find out that Florida wanted our design input.”

Davidson emphasized that the project and policy lab teaches students to blend academic research with practical application.

“It’s a great example of work at Stanford and Stanford Law School actually going out in the world and having a direct impact,” Davidson said. “And it’s especially meaningful to have worked on it during an election cycle we’ve never seen before because of the coronavirus pandemic changing the way that we live and vote.”

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Michaela Guo is a staff writer in the News section. She is a freshman and plans to study Human Biology and Asian American studies. Contact her at mguo ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.