Scientists Must Get Involved in Democracy Reform!

May 6, 2021
Element 5/Unsplash
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy

At its core, much of science is about understanding what is happening in the world. That is certainly true of the science of democracy, studying how the structures of democracy work. And American democracy is frail—and eroding under the weight of baseless attacks on the rights and ability of citizens to exercise their right to vote and to be fully represented in our democracy.

I have had the privilege of working with UCS Senior Fellow and Cal Poly Professor of Political Science, for the past three years, learning from him about the science of democracy.  Here are a few of the things I learned:

The science of democracy is data-based

It is often said that free and fair elections are at the core of democracy.  But as long as the actual process of voting is subject to political restrictions, both freedom and fairness are compromised. Instead, there are good objective scientific analyses that can and should guide the voting process (and indeed how to achieve fairer representation of voters by elected officials). And it is possible to measure voter access and opportunity quantitatively to improve both freedom and fairness.

Political actors. Unfortunately, many political actors would rather not use the scientific information and objective analysis because their goals are not freedom and fairness—but political advantage and power hoarding. Right now there are more than 300 bills (and counting) in state legislatures that are designed to further restrict the opportunity to vote. They are based on the deceitful, politically fabricated need to reassure voters that the elections are secure. This the punchline of a lie-fueled campaign, by the self-same proposers of these bills, to cast doubt on fair and secure elections, despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, they manufactured a problem that doesn’t exist and now are proposing to fix it.

Settling for “politics as usual” is undemocratic

When people say nothing can be done because that’s politics as usual, in reality that’s an acceptance of huge disenfranchisement. Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, as well as poorer citizens are subjected to higher and higher barriers to voting and are represented by fewer and fewer districts. In other words, the system works as intended by those seeking to hold on to power rather than truly represent the electorate! Politically constructed barriers are deliberately stripping away the rights of voters in targeted communities.

In every election cycle, huge efforts are made to overcome barriers to voting and get out the vote. Voter registration and voting drives even in communities that are targeted by suppression efforts can be successful and turnout goes up in spite of the barriers. And the next time around, the barriers get higher.

Ending politically motivated voter suppression would require that systemic change.  Rather than working to maintain power, voting systems should embrace the goal of fairer and robust representation of all of the electorate.  And the science of democracy is the guide.

Science and democracy are intertwined

If the science of democracy was really used to design our voting and representation process, there are three results that are almost guaranteed: 1) barriers would come down and voter turnout would increase dramatically, more in line with what other democracies experience rather than the low participation rates we see in the US; 2) the designation of  swing states would change and safe districts for one party or another would no longer be rigged to preserve the status quo of who is in power year after year; and 3) elected officials would have to be far more responsive to all of their constituents, not just a few that had ease of access and could be counted on to support the safe seats in the legislature.

Voting rights are not just a matter of fairness. There are real consequences to the suppression of those rights and the public policies that are enacted when some of our voters are systematically excluded from the process. Public health and safety outcomes in those same communities are worse. Environmental protections are weaker or non-existent and environmental justice is not achieved. Systemic racism pervades almost all that the government does when voters are suppressed – because elected officials do not have to address the needs of these communities to maintain their power.

As scientists, we should advocate loud and long for using science to solve societal challenges. And as scientists we depend on a functioning democracy to shape our society and to have a welcoming place to do our work. In the last four years we saw the consequences of the erosion of constitutional democracy for science. We were sidelined from addressing problems for which we know we can contribute to the betterment of the country. But it was science and a functioning government that is pulling us through the pandemic. And science and a responsive functioning government that will be needed to address climate change, racial justice and equity, and a just transition to a fairer economy. It all starts with the fundamental right to vote. This is a problem that science and scientists can help.

Scientists can’t stand aside from the battle for democratic reform

If we want to listen to the science, what can we do? Is it hopeless to fight politics as usual? No! There are key pieces of the puzzle that we can put together to strengthen and reshape a truly free and fair democracy right now.

There are bills in Congress that take a big step forward in stopping voter suppression. The For the People Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The Washington, DC Admission Act. If enacted, those trying to suppress the vote would be on the defensive.

Get active scientists!

And we can’t just wait for the federal process to work.  Elections are under state and local control. With the new Census, states will be drawing new congressional districts.  The state and local officials that have a big say in the voting process need to feel the pressure of their constituents call on them to use the science of democracy to draw district lines for fairer representation, not to unfairly hold onto power for one party or another.

Across the country people are speaking out for democracy reform movement!  Science and all of our society depends upon a stronger, fairer democracy.