Elections in a Pandemic (2020-2021)


Before the coronavirus outbreak, many people thought that the November 2020 elections in the U.S. would feature record voter turnout. The pandemic has now forced us to ask whether the U.S. will be able to hold a safe and open election. Whose voices will – and whose will not – be heard in this unusual time?

Democracy itself is being tested and reimagined during the pandemic, with political consequences that will likely outlast the public health threat of the virus. This is an ideal moment for research to seek solutions to protect public health and preserve democratic practices simultaneously.

Project Description

Building on research started in Summer 2020, this project team will investigate the challenges that the coronavirus outbreak poses to democratic electoral processes related to voter turnout and voting rights. Specific topics to be examined include:

  • Preserving access to the ballot during a pandemic, particularly for at-risk citizens
  • Protecting the health of voters and poll workers
  • Preserving voting rights for students
  • Reducing effects of provisional balloting

Research questions, and the associated research methods, will be shaped by the team and will depend on student interest and skills. However, the entire team will work to:

  • Examine and understand known challenges based on sources such as prior scholarly research, and first-person, activist, media and expert accounts
  • Consider novel uncertainties
  • Analyze data already gathered and available through public records

Team members will analyze large secondary datasets as well as batches of microdata at the precinct level to examine what is known about past elections, including who has voted (measured in terms of categories, such as geographic location, age and voting history), where and how they have voted (e.g., early voting, election-day voting, absentee ballots, provisional ballots) and how their votes have been counted (e.g., which provisional ballots have been counted, which have not). This data will be used to make projections about electoral participation in the coming election, to forecast factors such as crowding risk at polling sites and to issue recommendations regarding polling locations, participant distancing and staffing needs. Subgroups of the team will also interview and survey individuals involved with, or affected by, the balloting and voting practices being studied to understand how the present circumstances may alter past precedent.

The team will develop deliverables that directly address some of the key challenges confronting democracy in this pandemic, including strategies for recruiting young people to work in polling places and maximizing access to the ballot while minimizing public health risks. Team members will work in collaboration with nonpartisan partners such as the Board of Elections officials and You Can Vote, a nonprofit organization that provides voter education to North Carolinians, to implement this research during the fall election.

Anticipated Outputs

Data analysis and best practice recommendations for nonpartisan public officials; post-election analysis and recommendations for strengthening civic engagement; publication of findings


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Team kick-off; assign subgroups; begin data collection and analysis; generate materials and multimedia products for national conference hosted by Duke POLIS and for other relevant audiences (e.g., elected officials, student voters); observe and analyze election outcomes
  • Spring 2021: Evaluate effectiveness of products developed in the fall; analyze election outcomes to inform future products; develop final presentations and products


Abigail Phillips


Democracy Challenges and Opportunities in a Pandemic

This Team in the News

Bass Connections Teams Tackling COVID-19 Problems, from Food Security to Voting-by-Mail

Duke Today Covers Elections in a Pandemic Bass Connections Class

Elections in a Pandemic

See related team, Elections in a Pandemic: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (2021-2022).

Vote sign.

Team Leaders

  • Alexandra Cooper, Social Science Research Institute
  • Gunther Peck, Arts & Sciences-History

/graduate Team Members

  • Jessye Halvorson, Masters of Public Policy
  • Chase Johnson, Masters of Public Policy
  • Jeremiah Lau, Masters of Public Policy
  • Tina Tucker, Political Science-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Garrett Allen
  • Jeremy Carballo Pineda, Public Policy Studies (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Haley Cush
  • Adam Israelevitz
  • Paul Kim
  • Margarita Lane, Public Policy Studies (AB), History (AB2)
  • Grant Lyerly
  • Shirley Mathur, Statistical Science (BS)
  • Amber Park
  • Abigail Phillips
  • Ameya Rao
  • Gwyneth Reece, Psychology (BS)
  • Isabel Rewick
  • Emma Shokeir, Political Science (AB)
  • Jamael Smith
  • Sanna Symer, Computer Science (BS)
  • Kathryn Thomas
  • Tri Truong
  • Benjamin Wallace
  • Trinity Wenzel Wertheim
  • Genna Wolinsky

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Deondra Rose, Sanford School of Public Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • You Can Vote, North Carolina
  • North Carolina State Board of Elections