But two recent stories in the election realm raise a cautionary tale about what happens if we’re not careful (as practitioners or consumers) about the use of political science to learn more about elections.
The first comes from Montana, where researchers interested in studying how partisan cues might affect voting in nonpartisan judicial races have thrown the state into a frenzy. The problem is their use of a mailer that (perhaps illegally and certainly ill-advisedly) uses the Great Seal of Montana. [It looks like similar mailers have gone to California and New Hampshire too.] That piece, which critics claim is misleading to voters, is leading many people inside and outside of Montana to worry that the mailer (and the resulting controversy) could end up having an impact on the outcome. Worse, one defender of the project has sought to justify the mailer’s impact on Montana by suggesting that the concept of nonpartisan judicial elections isn’t such a good idea in the first place.
The second story involves a recent guest posting about non-citizen voting on the Washington Post’sMonkey Cage blog. The Monkey Cage – a well-respected political science blog – recently joined the Post, and has become a terrific source of political science-driven analysis and commentary on a wide range of issues. In their recent guest post, however, two researchers who have been studying non-citizen voting claimed that their analysis suggests that non-citizen voting is higher than previously thought and could be skewing outcomes. Not surprisingly, both sides in the ongoing “voting wars” (trademark Rick Hasen) have seized on the piece (as of midday Tuesday it had more than 3,000 comments) and it will be a centerpiece in voter ID and proof-of-citizenship fights for years to come. But several academics and analysts who are familiar with the data used in the study are saying that it doesn’t necessarily support the conclusions reached AND that even if it did that would indicate the need to study further, not publish the results.
This is the part where I remind you that I have been beating the drum for years about the need for more field experiments (like in Montana) that – by their very definition – look to measure the effect of a studied practice on voter behavior, and data-driven analysis (like in the Monkey Cage post). Properly executed, they are a powerful force for change in election administration and a means to rise above rhetoric and partisanship in shaping election policy.
But I would suggest that neither of these projects was properly executed.