Janene Paulson stood in the hall of the American Fork Library, surprised by the long line of early voters but thankful she arrived in time.
“I made it there two minutes before the polls closed,” she said, “because I was trying to make it back after I finished a test.”
Because this was her first time voting, Janene received two “I voted” stickers, one of which she wore and the other which she put in her journal.
For Janene, a junior from American Fork studying exercise and wellness, her experience with the recent presidential election began with early voting, several days before Election Day, Nov. 6. For other BYU students, the election started weeks earlier as they exercised their right to vote through absentee ballots. For a handful of political science students, however, this year’s election began at the start of the semester.
Every election cycle, or every two years, students from BYU’s Department of Political Science have the opportunity to conduct the only state-wide exit poll in Utah, the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. An exit poll is a survey of voters after they have voted, and in this way vary from opinion polls, which can be conducted at any point during an election.
In addition to being the only state-wide exit poll, the poll is also the longest student-run poll in Utah.
The exit poll began in 1982 when producers at KBYU called David Magleby, Ph.D., a professor of political science who had come to BYU from the University of Virginia just a year earlier.
“Out of the blue one day, I got a call from KBYU saying that the folks who had been doing their election analysis on election night were not going to be able to do so,” Magleby said, describing this important moment from 30 years ago. “They wondered if I’d be interested in doing it. I said, ‘well, tell me more,’ and they explained that I would come on after the polls closed at 8 o’clock as the results came in and do some analysis.”
Though he was interested, Dr. Magleby explained to the producers at KBYU there would be no significant or outstanding information to discuss until well into the evening. An exit poll, however, would provide them with more information, and if they would be willing to support a state-wide exit poll, he would look into making it possible.
“I had done a similar project at the University of Virginia in the 1980 election,” Dr. Magleby said, “where the students in my public opinion and voting class had designed a state-wide survey. That was panel survey in which we interviewed a random sample of Virginians before the first presidential debate and then we re-interviewed them right after the election and wanted to see what had changed.”
As a state-wide exit poll, however, this project would be a much larger undertaking. “An exit poll is much more complicated,” Magleby explained. “You can’t just do it from one location. You have to do it from scores of locations where the voters are, and to my knowledge no one had ever done this in an academic way.”
Knowing he would need the help of people all over the state, Magleby began contacting associates he knew from other colleges and universities in Utah. While he needed their support, what he really needed was a strong force of student volunteers.
“I am a big believer in the utility of learning by doing, and whenever that works in a course, I try to work it in,” Magleby said.
Needless to say, Magleby proved successful in organizing the first exit poll, and since 1982, the exit poll has seen the participation of numerous Utah schools and students. This past election, more than 600 students from six colleges and universities helped conduct the state-wide exit poll. These schools included BYU, Utah Valley University, Utah State University-Price, Weber State University, Southern Utah University and Westminster College.
According to Magleby, these schools usually participate, although he did point out that in all 30 years of the exit poll, the one school that has not participated is the University of Utah.
Over the years, Magleby and the Department of Political Science have also relied on students and professors from other colleges within BYU, namely the departments of communications and statistics, and this year was no different. Communications students provided media outlets for broadcasting the exit poll, and statistics students provided random samples to use on Election Day while conducting the exit poll. Even an emeritus professor of statistics, Howard Christensen, who recently returned from his second mission with his wife, returned to help with the poll. As Magleby described it, Christensen had been with the project from the beginning, and came back this year because it had gotten in his blood.
Despite this support from other institutions in Utah and colleges within BYU, a large portion of the responsibility fell on the political science students. They were responsible for organizing the efforts of all involved, as well as generating surveys, preparing for the live election night television broadcast, experimenting with ways to poll absentee voters and early voters (something they had never done before according to Magleby) and training student volunteers from the other schools in Utah.
“We told them in the first month that we’re going to teach you how to do surveys, at warp speed,” Magleby said, referring to these students, “because in a month you’re going to be going out and teaching college sophomores and freshmen yourselves. So pay attention, because you become the teachers.”
As they prepared for the exit poll, students were broken up into three committees: the PR committee, the interviewer, recruitment and training committee and the questionnaire committee.
Andy Gonzalez, a senior from Los Angeles majoring in political science, was part of the PR committee.
“My role was with the public relations committee,” Andy said, “doing press releases that were sent to different newspapers across the state, trying to do interviews and just trying to basically spread the word not only around BYU and the Utah county area but throughout the state.”
He also described how the committees collaborated together and helped each other out, whether by assisting in the training of student volunteers at other campuses or by working in crisis management teams on Election Day, driving around to different locations where students were polling voters to make sure everything was running smoothly.
While he was able to assist in training student volunteers at Southern Utah University, Andy’s experience on Election Day was unique. “I was able to be a regional analyst,” he said. “I was one of the six analysts who were in the broadcast building on Election Day doing the live show.”
The live show involved discussions and analyses based on the exit poll results, and these results were made available to radio and television stations state-wide according to Mark Phillips, a producer with BYU Broadcasting.
To view a clip of the live broadcast featuring Andy Gonzalez, visit youtube.com/watchv=euQoFysjREY&feature=youtu.be.