Newton South High School students are leading an effort to create the first Massachusetts chapter of The Polling Place, tracking elections, researching candidates, and explaining key political issues to provide voters with accessible, accurate information.
Newton South sophomores Mia Dror and Taban Malihi created this club in August and since then, the co-presidents have recruited online, attended club fairs, created flyers and urged their friends to sign up and attend their first meeting Oct. 20.
“I thought this was a really good way to continue my political work onto the year and hopefully create even just a little impact in such a large world of politics,” Dror said.
The Polling Place aims to provide access where there is often very little. Researching candidates in local elections can be tedious, Dror said, and an internet search can lead to few relevant or helpful results. Dror said there’s a need for thorough, reliable voter information, and students are up for the challenge.
“I had just worked in politics on a campaign,” Dror said. “I realized that while researching, it was really hard to find organized and accurate information on the candidate I was working with, or her opponent.”
Founded during the pandemic by five students in Arizona, The Polling Place is a nonpartisan, student-run voter information platform with 12 established state chapters and over 130 members. Students research elections and candidates, fact-check the information, and upload it to the website, which features an interactive map of the country.
Malihi said the organization is seeking to bring youth into the political conversation by providing them with factual, concise information. Historically, people age 18 to 29 have been least likely to vote, according to the United States Election Project.
However, college students smashed previous voting records in 2020, casting ballots in record numbers and perhaps signaling a surge in civic engagement as Gen Z comes of age, according to a national college voting study published in October by Tufts University.
“Being able to inform people on their candidates is the first step toward taking down the institutional barriers and the systemic barriers to actually making that change,” Malihi said. “I think this is one way that we’re not only addressing the problem of access to voter information, but we’re also addressing the problem of literal engagement with politics and stuff, which is pretty special.”
High school and college students run the Polling Place and its individual chapters, meaning young people -- even those not yet eligible to vote -- have direct involvement in their state and local elections, Malihi said.
The Newton South students did a dry run this fall before Tuesday’s election, when candidates in Newton faced off for mayor, City Council, and School Committee.
As the Newton South chapter grows its team before the next election, Dror and Malihi said they are looking for more student researchers, who are tasked with finding a given candidate’s background, political affiliation, “top issues” — such as education, infrastructure, and healthcare — endorsements, and more.
In the process of identifying and cataloguing political material, Malihi said the group makes sure to use “primary and secondary sources” in order to build an accurate database of Massachusetts elections.
Eventually, they hope to expand to statewide elections and partner with other schools so students are able to cover elections.
The Polling Place initially served as an information platform for Arizona voters before the 2020 primary elections, when co-founder Karsen Wahal said he would travel to “the fifth page of Google” before finding relevant facts about candidates.
In a month, the website received 20,000 views, said Madhura Shembekar, The Polling Place’s co-founder and director of outreach. That election coverage, along with an outpouring of positive feedback, propelled the organization to build a network of students nationwide including in Newton.
“I think we realized that this was kind of a valuable mission,” Shembekar said. “And probably not something that we wanted to be just a one-and-done.”
Ethan Ferrara , The Polling Place’s national director of research, said his passion for the nonprofit began when he saw his dad voting and was surprised by the number of local candidates.
“There were a bunch of names on there that I didn’t really recognize for all these different races,” Ferrara said. “I know some of the people in local politics — they’re very passionate people who really care about what they’re doing — and it just disappointed me, the fact that these voices of these passionate people aren’t being heard.”
Kaveri Krishnamoorthy, a sophomore at Newton South and new general member of The Polling Place, said she, too, saw a need for accessible voter information, especially for people like her parents who may not know where to find it.
“Our votes are what makes actual policy changes in our community, especially on a local level,” Krishnamoorthy said. “My parents don’t know that much about our local officials like mayors and governors, so I thought this is really, really cool because it gives people like my parents the opportunity to feel more involved in our community.”
After the local Polling Place chapter held its first official meeting, nearly 15 Newton South students chose from a list of 10 local candidates to research and report back on within the next week.
“We think it’s really, really important that students have this information and education,” Dror said with a smile. “Because children are our future.”
To join your local chapter of The Polling Place or start your own, visit thepollingplace.org/get-involved/.
Cameron Morsberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.