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Demystifying elections: Emory students learn to use data to create a better understanding of voting
Cara Waite (left) and Jackson Eckel (right)

Cara Waite (left) and Jackson Eckel (right) were among the students in Emory political scientist Bernard Fraga’s class who watched December 2022 election night results and worked in real time to translate the numbers into credible data analysis.

— Kay Hinton/Emory Photo Video

As analysts made election predictions based on Georgia poll results last fall, Emory College of Arts and Sciences junior Jackson Eckel was gathering information from 2,700 precincts across the state.

Polls predicting a tight U.S. Senate race between Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R) proved correct. The voting district data allowed Eckel, working with College senior Robert Schmad, to explain why: Republicans who voted down the ballot could not bring themselves to vote for either candidate.

“Walker lost by 36,000 votes in the general election, and up to 24,000 of them were undervotes from otherwise Republican voters,” Eckel, a political science major with a minor in quantitative methods, says of the voters who skipped the race. “That confirms how weak a candidate Walker was, in a process that really demystifies the election in a clear way.”

Eckel and Schmad were among 16 undergraduate and graduate students working together in Bernard Fraga’s Election Data Science course during fall semester, learning how to examine their theoretical grasp of politics and elections through a quantitative approach.

Fraga, an associate professor of political science, regularly conducts such statistical analyses of voter records and election results as part of his research into electoral politics and voter behavior.

As the class discovered in projects as varied as the shifting percentage of white voters who must support a statewide Democrat to win — now less than 30% — and the impact of the 2022 U.S. Senate race’s undervotes, the numbers often tell a clear story.

“A lot of Emory students have learned skills in class and gained knowledge from working on campaigns, or even just observing elections in Georgia, but haven’t figured out how to turn that into a credible analysis that makes them better consumers of journalism and data,” Fraga says.

“Learning how to examine and challenge popular narratives about elections builds understanding not just of this election but for what today’s political trends mean for the future of Georgia,” Fraga adds.

The course was Fraga’s first effort at guiding students through the quantitative skills and necessary engagement with the literature to unearth those trends. He now plans to offer the class every election cycle.

The course builds on Fraga’s research on the 2020 election in Georgia, which challenged the national narrative that white suburban voters were responsible for turning the state purple.

Instead, his analysis showed that more than a million Black voters were behind Democrats capturing the state’s two senate seats and supporting Joe Biden for president.

Cara Waite worked with Fraga on the project during her sophomore year. The political science major, who graduated in December 2022, enrolled in the fall course hoping to gain more coding experience.

She focused her research project on voter turnout and data visualization, decisions that allowed her to share screenshots of maps-in-progress with friends, driving home the significance of going to the polls versus staying home.

Waite also worked with Eckel on Election Night, pulling live data for Fraga’s real-time analysis of turnout and results. She is working with Fraga again this spring as she prepares for the LSAT and a career in public interest law.

“I find it all fascinating,” Waite says. “But even if you don’t find it that interesting, it’s never been more important to know how to understand what is going on in politics and with each other.”

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