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AAAS Forum: Research, Action Needed to Improve U.S. Elections
Geri Mannion and Shirley Malcom
With concerns mounting about the integrity of United States elections, AAAS and Carnegie Corporation of New York convened a panel of influential election experts to chart a course of research for improving the voting process.
What emerged from two days of meetings in Washington, D.C., was a shared view that elections need a 21st-century makeover—better technology, more training, and a renewed commitment to ballot box access and accuracy. To achieve that, many participants said, researchers and election administrators should collaborate more closely to assess problems and find practical solutions.
"Experiments are being done, but we have no way to capture the knowledge that is gained in a systematic way," said Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources and a member of the commission convened in 2005 by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. "As a result, we're constantly reinventing the wheel—or the flat tire."
The meeting at AAAS "illustrated you can bring a variety of disciplines together to tackle the continuing problems facing the U.S. election system, especially by teaming with those election administrators from the field willing to explore new and better ways to increase voter confidence in the system," said Geri Mannion, chair of Carnegie's Strengthening U.S. Democracy Program. "There are still a lot of challenges, but it's clear there are solutions, if talent and funding can continue to be invested in ensuring that all American voters have the election system they deserve."
The conference came just after U.S. mid-term elections that featured extensive problems, including long lines at polling places, shortages of paper ballots, and mysterious glitches in high-tech electronic voting machines. A post-election New York Times review [26 November 2006] found that such problems affected tens of thousands of voters in more than 25 states.
Mark S. Frankel
The conference, held at AAAS on 27 and 28 November, featured 40 policy-makers, election administrators, scholars, and activists, including Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. It was organized by Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program.
The conference was a sequel to a 2004 forum at AAAS at which 18 experts called for a crash course of study and reform to make results more reliable and to promote better access by voters, especially those who historically have encountered impediments to voting.
This year, too, the participants discussed specific problems that plague voting at every step of the process—arcane election laws, anomalies in voter registration databases, long lines at polling places, confusing ballot designs, and inaccurate vote counts.
But another, less obvious, theme was persistent: Researchers are frustrated that they are unable to gain access to useful election data, and election administrators often feel undermined by critical research that fails to account for real-world limitations.
"There is a big gulf right now between practitioners and voters and researchers," said Dana DeBeauvoir, the elected clerk of Travis County, Texas, who has served as an election monitor in South Africa and Bosnia. "Are we working on improvement in the voting system, which is what our goal is? Researchers' goals are publishing and advancing the field."
Thad Hall, a voting scholar at the University of Utah, acknowledged that narrowly focused research, without context, can exaggerate problems. But, he added, election officials may be sensitive even to accurate criticism. "They have an interest in promoting trust and confidence," Hall said, "and they don't want to do things that diminish that."
An initiative in Colorado's Larimer County offered a possible model of positive collaboration between election administrators and researchers.
Responding to the 2002 passage of the Help America Vote Act, Larimer pioneered the use of "vote centers," said County Clerk Scott Doyle. The county committed to voter education, then opened easy-access, electronically linked sites at which voters from any precinct could go to cast ballots. Researchers from Rice University in Texas followed up with a study of this year's election in Colorado, finding that the centers get high marks from voters and may help attract some who otherwise might not vote.
Many of the experts agreed that means are available now to improve voting, but that research is needed to help persuade elected officials and policy-makers to back reform and pay for it.
Still, a number of critical election issues won't be easily resolved. Participants disagreed on the value of electronic voting machines that have paper trails versus those that don't. Activists criticized voting machine manufacturers, but administrators stressed the need for constructive engagement with them. Malcom, among others, suggested that election administration should strive to be nonpartisan. But these and other issues are ripe for research, and that, participants said, is the value of the meeting.
The day after the meeting at AAAS, officials from Carnegie Corporation of New York and several other private foundations gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss funding strategies for future election-related research.
Frankel told participants at the AAAS forum that the association will soon launch the first-ever searchable, Web-based database on election research. Also, he said, a report summarizing the meeting will be issued early in 2007.
3 January 2007