For more than a decade, voters in the Charleston area have been met outside the polls by neatly dressed children and teenage students with clipboards, seeking to conduct exit polls.
Most voters find it hard to say no.
“I thought I was going to get rejected a lot more than I did," said Major Manchester, 12, a seventh-grader at University School of the Lowcountry in Mount Pleasant. “Some (voters) give us funny looks, but most of them are pretty nice."
It's a hands-on civics and statistics lesson for the students, who also meet with candidates in advance of elections and learn about voting rights. The exit polls they conduct typically allow Head of School Jason Kreutner to know who likely won local elections before the polls have closed.
On Nov. 5, less than half an hour after the polls closed — but hours before Charleston County finished counting the votes — Kreutner emailed some exit poll findings to reporters.
Those polls predicted that out of eight candidates for Mount Pleasant Town Council, Jake Rambo, Howard Chapman, and Brenda Corley would win, while Joe Bustos and Laura Hyatt were competing for the fourth seat, separated by a fraction of a percent of the vote in exit polls. Later that night election officials confirmed Rambo, Chapman, Corley and Hyatt had won.
The exit polls also correctly deduced that Kathleen Wilson would easily win a seat on the Commissioners of Public Works of the City of Charleston, and Rick Crosby would be reelected to the Mount Pleasant Waterworks Board of Commissioners.
The exit polls had Linda Page slightly ahead of Julian Hopkins for the second MPW commission seat. Page did win, narrowly edging out Hopkins.
“They were pretty close — very close. I think they did an excellent job," said Jordan Ragusa, associate chair of the Department of Political Science at College of Charleston.
“For them to be doing it with that age is pretty unique and a wonderful opportunity for their students," he said.
The ability to put teams of students at 14 voting sites in Mount Pleasant, where they polled 600 people about their selections, allowed for solid results. The exit pollsters spoke with an estimated five percent of the people who cast ballots in the town, and also polled voters in Charleston.
In the Charleston mayoral race, the school's exit polls predicted Mayor John Tecklenburg would win outright on Nov. 5, clearing the 50-percent-plus-one threshold to avoid a runoff with Councilman Mike Seekings.
Tecklenburg instead received just under 48 percent of the vote in the six-candidate race, requiring a runoff.
“It’s a lesson in sample sizes, in representative samples, and how many people you need to ask," Kreutner said.
The polls also provide insight about what voters are most concerned about in Charleston and Mount Pleasant (spoiler — the key issue is traffic) and point to forward-looking issues by asking voters about things that weren't on the ballot.
For example, students have found strong support — 68 percent — for changing Mount Pleasant's government to a strong full-time-mayor system, rather than the current system where the part-time mayor has limited power. Voters who were exit-polled in 2013 and 2009 had similar opinions, Kreutner said.
That's a finding that could influence Mount Pleasant's council, when the issue of putting a referendum on the ballot about the town's form of government comes up again. Earlier this year, the council did not approve such a referendum.