Science and Democracy Engages the Science of Democracy: The Kendall Voting Rights Fellowship

October 26, 2017 | 4:48 pm
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

This fall, I am excited to help launch a new chapter in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ commitment to putting science to work toward building a healthier planet and a safer world. My research training is in the field of electoral systems and their impact on representation and public policy. I am most recently a co-author on the book Gerrymandering in America: The Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and The Future of Popular Sovereignty. As the new Kendall Voting Rights Fellow, I will be studying the impact of elections on many of the broader policy goals that UCS is pursuing.

In this context, a healthier and safer world means an open, resilient electoral system that can fairly and accurately convert aggregated preferences into policy choices. There are a number of opportunities where UCS can make an important contribution to improving voting rights and electoral institutions.

Fighting voter fraud and voter suppression

Perhaps no area in the field of voting rights has received more attention than President Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally to deny him a popular vote majority. The entire event serves as a painful reminder of how scientists can lose control over how their research is used. While we can say with absolute certainty that the president’s claim is false, there is no scientific consensus on how to best estimate levels of voter fraud.

We know that voter fraud occurs, but techniques for accurately estimating fraudulent votes cast, which lie somewhere between allegations and convictions, are difficult (but see discussions here and here). UCS will be working to provide the public and policy makers with the most accurate science available, and we will work with partner organizations to build safeguards that assure the integrity of voting for all who are eligible, especially those who are at risk of being disenfranchised through overly restrictive eligibility and voting requirements.

Similarly, there is a great deal of anecdotal information about the negative impact of voter suppression tactics. Previous scientific studies have shown that laws like voter identification have a negative impact on minority groups, but more recent work has been critiqued on methodological grounds. UCS will work to identify the participatory consequences of administrative laws ranging from early registration deadlines to online and automatic registration, early voting, and ballot access laws.

Improving policy outcomes through electoral integrity

When voting rights are compromised, it is typically because policy makers are attempting to insulate themselves from electoral pressure on critical policy issues. As we have seen in areas as diverse as climate policy, transportation, food systems and even global security, when policy makers are shielded from electoral accountability, they are more susceptible to the influence of powerful, narrow interests.

Scientists are in a unique position to bring policy expertise to questions regarding the consequences of restrictive election laws. In addition to assessing the extent to which our current electoral methods, including administrative law, electoral districting, and the Electoral College, create opportunities and threats to electoral integrity and security, we will work to identify how these methods impact legislative policymaking and social outcomes.

UCS already plays a crucial role in educating the public and combating environmental racism and public health risks. However, there is a gap in research exploring the link between electoral gamesmanship and the environmental and health injustices that afflict the most vulnerable communities. UCS can draw on expertise across numerous fields to help fill this gap.

In addition, analyses and research products on electoral integrity that UCS can provide will allow us to strengthen existing partnerships with communities dedicated to the advancement of environmental justice, political equality and human rights. From local communities to the U.S. Capitol, we will work with organizations to improve electoral integrity though the adoption of open and secure election laws.

Developing a reform agenda

An area that should be of particular interest to the UCS community and members of the Science Network is election information security and technology, a field where computer scientists have as much to say as political scientists. There is widespread agreement that not only are many of the nation’s voting machines outdated and vulnerable to hacking, but that cyber-attacks on election software and records will play an ever-increasing roll as a threat to electoral integrity.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that the very structure of systems such as the Electoral College create security threats by focusing the attention of hackers and disinformation campaigns on a small number of states that can swing a presidential election. UCS will partner with advocacy organizations to analyze threats and innovations in election security, and advocate for evidence-based policies to address these threats.

And as this month’s landmark gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court also made clear, scientists are playing a major role in providing recommendations about how to determine racial and partisan discrimination in districting plans, and studying the consequences of proposed legislative remedies. In addition to identifying causes and remedies for electoral discrimination, UCS experts can help fill the gap of understanding how such discrimination affects environmental, health and related policies, which tend to negatively impact specific populations.

Rigorous analysis of the impact of electoral integrity on policy, and the ways that electoral discrimination impacts our quality of life, will provide critical support needed for reform. The challenges are clear, but so is the mission: to understand and engineer the democratic institutions that we need to build a healthier planet and a safer world.

About the author

More from Michael

Michael Latner is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His research focuses on political representation and electoral systems, including redistricting and gerrymandering in the US, and the impact of electoral administrative law on political participation.