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How political scientists informed the president about election reform

- January 23, 2014

This is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Barry C. Burden, who is a member of the Election Administration Project. Follow him on Twitter @bcburden.

This week, the White House received a report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. It offers recommendations on a range of election practices, including how to shorten waiting times, accommodate voters with limited English proficiency, and staff polling places. These conclusions, which may well spark federal and state legislation, would not be possible without research support from political scientists. How did that happen?
It began with an apparent ad lib in President’s Obama’s victory speech on election night 2012. Obama spoke the scripted words: “I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time” and then interjected , “by the way, we have to fix that.” He elaborated on the promise with two paragraphs in his February 2013 State of the Union address. A month later, he formally established the Presidential Commission on Election Administration via executive order.
The order outlined 10 issues to consider, including topics such as polling place management, absentee ballot practices, and voting technology, all of which would be on “efficient administration…to improve the experience of all voters.” In May, the 10 members of the commission were formally appointed and its Web site created. The order required a final report to the president in six months from its first formal meeting. Such is the power of an offhanded comment by the president of the United States.
Personnel were critical to the commission’s success. It was co-chaired by Robert Bauer, lawyer to both the Obama campaign and the Obama White House, and Benjamin Ginsberg, lawyer for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the two campaigns of George W. Bush. The remaining members hailed from private industry, the military, and – in a break with previous election commissions – actual election administrations. Half of the commissioners had run elections in various states.
Bauer and Ginsberg were keen on having academic expertise inform the commission’s work. So was law professor and political scientist Nathaniel Persily, who was appointed as its research director. Persily in turn invited noted political scientists, including Stephen Ansolabehere and Daron Shaw, to organize a team of scholars to support the Commission’s work. This team included Charles Stewart, me, and a host of other experts in the field of elections. The group quickly developed and implemented a survey of the nation’s local election officials, marshaled the scholarly literature on election administration, and divided topics into a set of “white papers” for presentation to the commission. I coauthored two white papers, one with Brian Gaines on absentee ballots and another with Jeffrey Milyo on poll workers. These reports were part of testimony at the Denver and Cincinnati hearings and are now part of the appendices to the report.
I was frankly impressed by the commissioners’ interest in hearing from academics. Although testimony from voting machine vendors, public officials, and advocates was also extremely valuable, political scientists were given serious attention. Commissioners wanted to know the details of methods and findings. I recall that speakers at one hearing faced a box that lit a red light when their (quite limited) time ran out. That light was conveniently turned off when it was time for the political scientists to speak. The professors and the commissioners could have spent entire days talking through the evidence (and Charles Stewart repeatedly did).
This represents a change in the subfield of election administration. In a way not possible for commissions that convened after the 2000 and 2004 elections, we had data at our disposal, as Charles Stewart and I document in our forthcoming book, The Measure of American Elections. The commission’s hearings were closely tied to data and evidence rather than partisanship. This is what made the academics valuable – the ability to marshal evidence in a cautious but open-minded fashion.
The final report does not reach exactly the conclusions that I would. I would go farther with concerns about absentee ballots and push for election day or automatic voter registration. But the report is a thoughtful summary of the many views and demands of the commission’s audience. It sidesteps bigger partisan disputes and pushes for smart administrative improvements. Political scientists played a significant role in the final product, and what we hope are ongoing efforts at the state and federal level to improve elections. It is a model for how scholarship can inform policy making.