MIT Launches New Election Data and Science Lab

[Image via dexterslab]

Yesterday, my friend and colleague Charles Stewart shared the news that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had created a new entity to advance the use of data in election administration:

The idea of the lab grows out of a desire to provide a hub to help direct scholars, election officials, citizen groups, journalists, and the general public to the best research into the conduct of elections.  By the end of the year, we will have a fully functioning Website that will serve as a one-stop portal, pointing to scholars, research, and data sources that should be of use to the entire elections community.

While the Lab will be responsible for conducting its own original research, what I most look forward to is championing the excellent work that colleagues around the country are doing to bring rigorous social science to questions of election reform and election administration.  I also hope the Lab will become a venue for practitioners and scholars to meet and grapple with the the difficult empirical issues that face election administration and reform.

Here’s more from a MIT press release:

A new enterprise dedicated to researching and improving elections based on scientific principles launches today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab (MEDSL) will generate, advance, and disseminate scientific knowledge in an effort to develop a comprehensive evidence base about the conduct of elections in order to improve their performance. 

Founded by Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, the Lab will address multiple audiences of academic researchers, election practitioners, and the general public.  It will serve a unique and independent role as it applies scientific principles to empirical questions about the administration of American elections. 

“My hope for this Lab is that it will serve as an international, non-partisan resource for housing the expertise and evidence necessary to inform improvements of elections,” said Professor Stewart. “In the midst of a policy area that has become hyper-politicized, we hope to provide a counterbalance of hard evidence and analytical thinking.   And, we look forward to bringing together communities in the election administration debate who often talk past each other, by offering an evidence-rich focal point of discussion.“

Major funding to launch the Lab comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation through its Madison Initiative. “Our primary focus at the Madison Initiative is on improving Congress’ ability to deliberate, negotiate and compromise in ways that more Americans support,” said Jean Bordewich, program officer for the Madison Initiative. “At a fundamental level, the conduct of elections affects the experience of voters and people’s trust in American democracy.  It’s imperative that we, as a nation, get this right and we believe that this Lab, under Professor Stewart’s leadership, can move us in the right direction.”

The work of MEDSL builds on more than a decade’s worth of work by Professor Stewart to promote the nonpartisan analysis of how election processes work, how they affect voters, and how they can be improved.  Some of this work has been through the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology project, which will now be supported at MIT by the Lab.  Other lab research anticipated in the near future includes assessing the overall performance of election administration in 2016, analyzing factors that reduce lines at polling places, and studying the confidence of voters in the election process.

MEDSL has a temporary website where you can sign up for updates, and at that page it lists “our plans”:

  • Election Administration Data Archive and Clearing House. To facilitate the sharing of election data that is especially relevant to the advancement of Election Science, the Lab will develop a web-based tool that will serve as a clearing house for the dissemination of critical datasets, such as state voter registration files, nationwide precinct-level election returns, and GIS files relevant to the spatial analysis of election data.
  • Election Science Resource Portal. The Lab will contribute both to the establishment of a more robust academic field of Election Science and to the dissemination of its findings among the public by the development of a web site that will serve as a one-stop “portal” into research about these matters.
  • Election Science Research Network. The Lab will facilitate the creation of a network of scholars who identify with the field of Election Science and identify a set of academic institutions that share the same goals as MEDSL.
  • “Snap” research on emerging election science topics. The Lab will maintain an ongoing research capacity that will allow it to deploy resources at a moment’s notice and provide “snap” analysis of emerging problems with American elections, in order to help communicate dispassionately with the public about the causes and possible solutions to such problems; and also to help identify long-term research directions for the scholarly community.
  • Support the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. MEDSL provides ongoing administrative support for the MIT operations of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.
  • Manage the Election Data and Science New Initiatives Fund. For the next three years, the Lab will provide grants to scholars — prioritizing advanced graduate students and junior faculty members — to enhance the research they are conducting in the field of election science.

[There aren’t yet any pictures on the website so I’ve shared my own idea of what it will look like. Note that this may not be 100% accurate.]

This is, simply, fantastic news for the field. Charles has been a key player in election administration for years – both as a source of data but also as a model for the kind of evidence-based approach the field needs. Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation for its support of this effort, to MIT for housing the work and to Charles for being the election data hero we need.

Read to the end of his post and you see that Charles even has enough data to know what I’m going to say next … stay tuned!

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