The polling prodigies
As it began, Election Day 2016 was like any other in American history.
There were citizens lining up patiently to cast their lots for candidates, dedicated poll workers working long hours to ensure the votes were counted, and news media and pollsters consulting with voters after the fact, hoping to gleam some sense of how the elections would turn out. Joining the latter group, and eager to take part in the political process, were dozens of students from the Mt. Pleasant-based University School of the Lowcountry (USL). The students, fanned out across Charleston and Berkeley Counties, conducted over 1900 exit polls with voters on November 8 on a variety of candidates, races and issues up and down the ticket.
Clad in khaki shorts, slacks, or skirts, along with white, USL-collared tops, the third-grade through twelfth-grade students approached thousands of voters on their way out of 26 Lowcountry voting locations, including 24 in Charleston County and two on Daniel Island. The USL pollsters approached voters, asking them to anonymously share the decisions they made on everything from the Presidential race, to the proposed Charleston County half-cent sales tax referendum.
Each of the 13 student/teacher groups conducted polling throughout the morning at voting locations where they were assigned, and then with their polling completed, they returned home to the USL campus to compile and tally their results. The students, faculty, and volunteering parents then compared their polling to national polls and of course the actual election results themselves, before releasing their results to the public after polls closed at 8 p.m.
Daniel Island was not only home to two of the school’s 26 designated polling places, the Daniel Island School and the Daniel Island Club, the USL exit poll even included a special exit poll question for only Daniel Island voters - a question about the fate of the U.S.S. Clamagore submarine currently located at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
The students asked Daniel Island voters if they would support local officials in an attempt to keep the submarine in the Lowcountry. The group had asked the question across Charleston County as part of their 2014 and 2015 polling efforts, and wanted Daniel Island’s opinion as well. As was the case in the two years prior in Charleston County, the results on Daniel Island were overwhelming, with 86 percent of respondents voting in favor of keeping the sub in Charleston (for more results from the USL’s 2016 exit polling project see the information box inset).
This was the tenth annual exit polling project conducted by the school, an independent, non-sectarian private school for high-achieving students in grades three through 12. The project is a hallmark program of USL and the brainchild of school Principal Jason Kreutner, who built it as a year-long part of the school’s curriculum.
“It is a great learning activity about mathematics, statistics, and the democratic process for us all,” said Kreutner in a statement. “Doing it yearly also enables students to see first-hand the ebb and flow of turnout rates for the different types of elections, and it helps students to be active participants in the civic arena.”
And when he says “yearly,” Kreutner means it. Students at the school take part in the program year after year, not only during Presidential election cycles, but for lower-level municipal and state elections too.
Eighth-grade student Will Courtney, for example, has taken part in the program since 2012. “It’s been really fun,” said Courtney, who worked the polls at both the Daniel Island Club and the Daniel Island School last Tuesday with his group, chaperoned by Daniel Island resident and USL parent Robert Parkman. Parkman’s daughter, Caitlin, was with a different group polling in Mount Pleasant.
Students utilize skills from a myriad of disciplines in conducting the polling, tabulating, and prognosticating associated with the project. Surprisingly, many students, like Courtney, also enjoy the challenge of being statistically accurate. “Actually, that stuff’s pretty hard,” he added. “But it’s cool to see how close we can get to the actual numbers.”
Seventh-grader Charlotte Andragna agreed and with an air of confidence to boot. “It is fun to be part of the process,” said the 13 year-old. “We’re always accurate.”
And while the mathematics and statistics skills the students call on to tabulate, assess, and publish the results of their polling are well-developed, so too are their interpersonal communication skills, which are tested by sometimes emotional, sometimes closed-off voters each year. Even Courtney, as polite, well-mannered, and well-spoken a 14-year-old as one would ever hope to meet, reported that almost half of the voters he asked to fill out the survey declined to do so.
Among the group of students assigned to conduct polling on Daniel Island was eleventh-grader Sasha Audier-Johnson. Audier-Johnson is unique in that though she only attended the school for a few years, and now studies creative writing at the Charleston County School of the Arts, she still returns to her old campus each November to assist with the polling program. The experienced pollster can attest to the fun of the event and the process.
“I still come back and mentor here all the time,” said Audier-Johnson, a James Island resident who worked her eighth Election Day exit poll last week, a day shy of her seventeenth birthday. “It’s a great place. I just love the school in general. It’s just an incredible place, so to be able to come back and have this experience and see all the new kids and be back in the same environment again, it’s great.”
The group’s faculty chaperone, Mandarin teacher Hong Lee, is a big believer in the political process and is thrilled to see that same passion in her students. “I think they are more interested because they are part of the process,” said Lee.
“So when they have the chance to one day get involved, they’re not going to be scared of that,” she continued. “It’s like a language, like Chinese, you simply get more comfortable doing it with practice. They solve the problems, the bigger problems like who’s going to be President and smaller problems like ‘how do we understand that.’ They know about the voting process, the political process and how things go in our system.”
For more information on the University School of the Lowcountry or their Exit Polling Project, see the school’s website at www.uslowcountry.org or find them on Facebook.