Category: Student Experience

Title: McCourt Student Leads First Sample-Based Election Observation in U.S. History


Ben Mindes (MPP ‘19) founded the Observe D.C. initiative to provide the first representative data about the quality of election administration in Washington, D.C. Observers piloted a sample-based election observation (SBO) effort during the D.C. general elections on November 6, 2018.

SBO is a methodology used worldwide by citizen groups to conduct nonpartisan monitoring of the election day process. It helps safeguard election integrity and ensure that the election day process is transparent and administered in accordance with the rules of the election.

Because data is collected from observers deployed to a representative, random sample of polling places across the city, SBO allows groups like Observe D.C. to make a comprehensive statement about election day administration in the District. Observe D.C.’s effort was is the first-ever sample-based election observation initiative in U.S. history.

Election Day Observation

On November 6, 2018, 83 trained volunteer observers were deployed to randomly sampled polling places, where they were posted from open to close (just before 7AM to just after the last voter cast their ballot).

Throughout the day, observers monitored whether election officials followed proper procedures, that polling places ensured access for disabled voters, and that the voting process itself is both efficient and secret.

Observers recorded their information on these processes and also took note of the total ballots cast periodically throughout the day at 10AM, 2PM, 5PM and at the end of the day.

In order to receive each of the observer’s six scheduled reports throughout the day, Observe D.C. transformed the Healy Ethics Lab on Georgetown’s main campus into a call center where volunteers (predominantly students from the College, McCourt, and the School of Foreign Service) fielded and recorded observer reports into a database for immediate analysis.

An (Overall) Orderly Election Day in the District

Unlike the elections in Florida and Georgia, which were plagued by malfunctioning machines and long lines to vote, Observe D.C. found that Election Day in the District of Columbia was by and large conducted smoothly, and citizens were able to exercise their right to vote.

All the necessary materials – including DS2000 Optical Scanners, ExpressVote machines, paper ballots, and special ballots – were available in all polling places. However, Observe D.C. data indicate that there is room for improvement. For example, Observe D.C. was barred from monitoring the set-up and closing processes – critical to ensure transparency and functionality of voting and counting machines.

Also problematic was the fact that, in nearly 20 percent of polling places, results information was not posted immediately after polls closed.

Discussing the results of the pilot, Ben told us “not only were we able to prove that members of a community can come together to provide independent oversight over election administration, our statistically valid data will be used to push forward meaningful reforms that can better improve the election day experience for voters in D.C.”

You can read the full preliminary results in the Observe D.C. Preliminary Report.

Innovation Grant Winner

Ben’s project was funded by the Baker Center for Leadership & Governance as part of their second class of Baker Innovation Grants.

The Baker Innovation Grant is a unique award program that selects and funds a group of five students with promising and innovative solutions to a pressing social, political and policy challenges.