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Undergraduate Research - Rachel Freeman

by Kyrsten Keith '09Rachel Freeman

At a time of political transformation - from a rise in the number of migrant, young, and minority voters, to the election of America's first African American president - many of the problems that have long plagued our nation's democratic process are currently being addressed. However, despite the many improvements, errors that take place during the actual voting process remain largely unaddressed. While many initiatives target problems, such as voter apathy and voter registration, very few projects address the problems that occur at the polls themselves. Rachel Freeman, now a senior at Pacific, found this issue provocative and decided to take her concern a bit further. Originally attracted to the idea of aiding the political process without having to deal with actual political parties, Rachel later became part of the development of a module concerned with getting college students involved in the voting process.

Stemming partially from her own interests, as well as the request of her professor, Rachel began to research voting errors, as well as the best way to resolve such mistakes. Rachel took her concern with voting down a different path and attempted to determine the best ways to educate voters. She explained that a huge problem in the voting process goes beyond getting people to vote - rather we need people to vote correctly. In other words, Rachel studied how and why voting ballots become 'spoiled' or invalid, and which methods would be best to educate voters on how to fill out each ballot in order for it to count. For instance, a ballot is deemed 'spoiled' if it is incorrectly filled out, smudged, if two votes are marked in the same category, and if voters cross party lines during the closed primary elections. After viewing over 5,000 ballots in order to determine the main error on each ballot and the voter's party affiliation, Rachel began to formulate her hypothesis.

What started out as a paper for her Research Methods class quickly turned into a research project that would astoundingly come to affect all of San Joaquin County. Rachel and her partner, Tonja Swank, studied and constructed their first paper, entitled, "An Analysis of Voter Errors: A Communication Perspective," which detailed many of the common blunders voters make when filling out their ballots. However, Rachel's research did not end there; Rachel's professor believed that she could take her research much further, and that it could inspire true change to accompany the changing voter climate. As a result, Rachel's professor asked her to continue her research through a summer fellowship, so that she could assist their ongoing "Vote Smart" research project, on which nine professors from four different departments were already working.

San Joaquin County largely financed the "Vote Smart" project, as the county itself allocated $250,000 to Pacific in order to fund research concerning the process of voter education. However, while this grant largely funded the research that went into Rachel's original paper, as well as a good part of the research done by other members of the same project, the grant money did not include funds for summer research assistance. As a result, the Pacific Fund financed Rachel's later research and second paper, "Raising Voting Quality: A Review of Voting Errors, Literature and Analysis of Steps in Reducing Those Errors."

The second part of Rachel's project was threefold. First, she met with the Registry of Voters' Austin Erdman in hopes of discovering the current initiatives intended to improve the voter education process. In the second phase of Rachel's research, she visited the polls during the June 3, 2008 primary election. She went to three separate polling locations and interviewed the poll workers, so she could better determine the quality of poll-worker training. Finally, Rachel conducted an extensive literature review, in which she attempted to locate some form of current research on voter education, the physical quality of the voting ballots, and the training of poll workers. Interestingly, Rachel reported she found little to no research on her specific topic. She noted that some research was conducted in 2000, but since new, scannable ballots have replaced the previous punch ballots, she found this research too dated to be of much use.

Her research led Rachel to the conclusion that many "other counties are doing more for their voters than ours is;" however, thanks, in part to her efforts, this is quickly changing. Rachel argues that there should be more newspaper articles prior to each election detailing how to fill out ballots properly. After all, Rachel surmises, "it does no good to vote if you can't fill out the ballot correctly." Rachel explains that too many voters do not understand many of the basics of voting. In particular, many do not understand that they cannot cross party lines during primary elections, since California has a closed primary. Moreover, voters often attempt to change parties on Election Day, without realizing they must do so beforehand. Consequently, Rachel believes voter education, prior to each election, is an often-overlooked necessity.

Rachel also discovered that technology can assist counties in determining which methods are best to educate voters in different areas of the community. For example, she learned about a geographical informational system that is capable of mapping out counties and overlaying census data with precinct data. This program makes it possible to determine which parts of a county have the highest concentrations of certain language speakers, and which areas have higher and lower averages of income. Counties can utilize such information to target each audience more specifically and to better determine why voting problems may be occurring. For instance, even though ballots are available in both Spanish and English, it may be the case that little to no information about how to correctly fill out a ballot is being printed in the local Spanish newspaper. Such information could be highly useful in determining how to best approach voter education in each area.

The results of Rachel's investigation allowed her to construct a paper in which she outlined numerous recommendations to the county on ways to improve voter education, ballot quality, as well as the quality of poll-worker training. Her paper included numerous observations and interviews, as well as Rachel's own insight. What is more, not only were many of Rachel's comments poignant, but the county has implemented quite a few of her recommendations in response to her investigation and proposal. She explained that because the university funded her research, "the Registrar of Voters was more willing to look at the results." In other words, Pacific's financial assistance seems to have validated Rachel's findings in the county's eyes.

Rachel's research became part of a much greater mission - a venture intended to improve voting quality in all of San Joaquin County. The Pacific Fund also allowed Rachel to attend the Western States Communication Association's annual undergraduate research conference. She commented that, "It is things like the Pacific Fund that make Pacific unique from other schools."

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