In the early fall of 2004, the SSRC was approached by several senior social scientists and seasoned election observers who expressed surprise at the absence of a national resource for nonpartisan scholarship on electoral process controversies in the United States. Because many of the underlying weaknesses in the country’s election administration system had not been sufficiently addressed in the wake of the 2000 presidential election (despite the work of a bipartisan commission and new legislation), concerned citizens worried that a close 2004 contest could result in widespread debates over the credibility of results in key states and districts. Many election specialists also believed that several other longstanding problems with the current election oversight system demanded a collaborative social scientific response that was largely missing from public discourse. For their part, nonpartisan observer groups and some public servants expressed alarm that the primary data and insights needed to evaluate the integrity of the electoral system—ranging from voter registration trends to the distribution of different types of voting machines across precincts—were of uneven quality and only sporadically accessible to individual researchers.
In response the SSRC launched the National Research Commission on Elections and Voting. Composed of 19 of the nation’s leading scholars on electoral process issues and chaired by Alexander Keyssar of Harvard University, the diverse group of political scientists, historians, sociologists, and legal experts was tasked with three complementary objectives: to inform public discussions over electoral process controversies that might emerge following the November 2 Presidential Election; to build a foundation for a national social science clearinghouse and public repository of data and research on topics bearing on electoral reform; and to articulate the major questions and themes that should inform a more ambitious social science research agenda to strengthen the integrity and accessibility of the US electoral process.
Start-up activities of the Commission began immediately after its formation. The SSRC launched a dedicated website to serve as an information clearinghouse and disseminator of the Commission’s activities (http://elections.ssrc.org) and inaugurated a daily monitoring effort to track data, research, and claims from academic and nonpartisan sources regarding electoral process controversies as they might arise after the election.“Although Election Day 2004 did not witness the same crisis of doubt that plagued Florida in 2000, allegations of serious irregularities in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere captured the attention of significant numbers of scholars and citizens.”
In the weeks following the Presidential Election on November 2, Commission members and SSRC staff mobilized to respond to specific questions and controversies arising in the media. Although Election Day 2004 did not witness the same crisis of doubt that plagued Florida in 2000, allegations of serious irregularities in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere captured the attention of significant numbers of scholars and citizens. Individually and collectively, Commission members helped interpret and assess the significance of these irregularities—in editorials, radio programs, essays, and newspaper interviews. In mid-November, SSRC staff canvassed Commission members to form an interim working group to respond more systematically to some of these controversies. In a written report released on December 21, the group concluded that, although publicly reported claims and arguments concerning alleged irregularities did not present compelling evidence of election fraud, a definitive resolution of some allegations might never be possible because of inadequate data and insufficient transparency of the election process. The group therefore recommended that national standards be adopted to ensure the full and transparent collection of a wide variety of electoral process data, in order to restore the credibility of the electoral process and facilitate effective resolution of controversies in future elections.
The final report
As the interim report was being completed, Chair Alexander Keyssar continued to work with individual Commission members on articulating the major social scientific questions and research challenges facing efforts to strengthen the legitimacy and integrity of America’s election and voting system. These insights served as the basis for a final report of the Commission, released on March 1. The report, entitled Challenges Facing the American Electoral System: Research Priorities for the Social Sciences, reviews ten priority electoral process themes that demand a more concerted social science response:
- improving the process of registration and voting;
- nonpartisan election administration;
- subjective voter perceptions regarding the registration and voting process;
- felon disenfranchisement;
- immigrant voting concerns;
- discrimination and the Voting Rights Act;
- voting rights of persons with cognitive impairments;
- factors affecting voter turnout;
- reform of the Electoral College; and
- partisanship and districting.
After surveying the research challenges that lie within each of these priority areas, the authors conclude the report by calling for the formation of problem-oriented national social scientific working groups to carry out new lines of research. The Commission report also recommends that existing research and data resources be integrated and strengthened to facilitate the work of scholars, and that comparative research drawing on the experiences of different states and nations be mobilized to help inform current reform efforts.
Looking forward“Although the Commission’s immediate mandate has been met with the completion of its final report, the need for a mobilized social scientific research response to America’s electoral process challenges is still acute.”
Although the Commission’s immediate mandate has been met with the completion of its final report, the need for a mobilized social scientific research response to America’s electoral process challenges is still acute. SSRC staff are currently working with Commission members, other scholars, institutional partners, and funders to begin undertaking several of the research and infrastructure-building priorities outlined in the final report.
In the immediate future, the SSRC also intends to deepen its role as a catalyst and clearinghouse through the dynamic upgrading of the Commission website. As of early February, the website and its searchable databases contained over 60 recent research products, 375 press articles, 400 bibliographic entries, indices for over 90 organizations, and 37 data archives. Future upgrades to the site will include regular scholarly analysis and commentary on current policy debates, postings on conferences and research opportunities, and links to downloadable datasets. In continuing to build the clearinghouse and working to support new problem-oriented research networks, the SSRC’s commitment to electoral process work is part of its overall mission to bridge the research needs of public and civil society groups with those of scholars operating across different institutions, disciplines, and levels of analysis.
Jason McNichol directed the National Research Commission on Elections and Voting and served as a program officer for emerging projects at the SSRC.
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 5, No. 3 in the Fall of 2005. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.