Abstract: Incomplete Democracy: Electoral Access on Midterm Elections in St. Louis (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Incomplete Democracy: Electoral Access on Midterm Elections in St. Louis

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 10, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kyle A. Pitzer, MSSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Gena McClendon, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Director, Voter Access and Engagement Initiative, Washington University in St. Louis,, Saint Louis, MO
Michael Sherraden, PhD, George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor, founder and director, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Aura Aguilar, BA, Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Background and Purpose

There is evidence that those living at or below the poverty line and people of color are more likely to face barriers to participation in the electoral process. Voter ID laws, long lines, shortage and malfunction of equipment, shortage of trained election judges are just a few such challenges. This study examined if access to voting differed by race and income at 20 polling locations throughout two counties (urban and suburban) during a recent mid-term election.


Data were collected using a cross-sectional observation instrument. Both quantitative and qualitative responses were allocated to two constructs; infrastructure and voting process. A series of correlation analyses were conducted for study items related to infrastructure and voting process and percentage of black residents and median incomes for each census tract where polling places were located. Pearson correlations were used when data met assumptions, and Kendall’s tau-b correlations were used when assumptions were violated and ties were present. Qualitative themes were derived from field notes and open responses provided by student researchers observing the polls.


Median income was positively correlated with disability access and visibility of disability access signs while percent black was negatively correlated. Observations at polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods elucidate the relationship between race and disability access, with researchers recording multiple issues with both the layout of the building and obstructions in paths leading to it. While signs directing voters to polling locations was negatively correlated with median income, qualitative observations suggest that these types of signs were an issue in all types of neighborhoods. Additionally, signage directing voters to the entrance were observed by researchers to be unclear and confusing, particularly in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of black residents.

The number of election judges and interference with the free passage of voters was positively correlated with median income and negatively correlated with percent black. Additionally, polling places in both types of neighborhoods had issues with lines, though these were unique to the type of neighborhood. For low-income neighborhoods, qualitative data suggested there were issues with confusion in poll worker setup and privacy during voting, while in predominantly black neighborhoods there were issues with equipment such as electronic voting machines and poll pads. Finally, although voter interference was observed in low income and predominantly black neighborhoods, in low-income neighborhoods there was more police presence, while in predominantly black neighborhoods there were issues with navigating crowds, electioneers, and researchers observed open discussion of difficulties with voting.

Conclusions and Implications

The study explored whether demographic and economic characteristics play a role in voter access. The results of this study highlight the role that race and income play in both the infrastructure of polling locations and the voting process itself. While polling locations in both low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods experienced similar problems, there were also unique challenges related to each of these characteristics independently. Expectations about differences in access to voting for low-income and predominately black neighborhoods were moderately supported, and implications for social work will be discussed.