Paper trails and exit polls, vote suppression and hanging chads—problems in the U.S. system of choosing political leaders have become high-profile concerns in recent years, casting election results in doubt and eroding public confidence. Now AAAS is launching an extensive database of voting-related research to aid researchers, election administrators, journalists, and others interested in the workings of voting process.
The ambitious project—the first of its kind in the United States—will permit fast, free access to research focused on a broad range of issues, from absentee voting to polling places and voting technology. The database currently has about 500 entries, most of them published since 2000, and the collection will grow considerably as more research is added.
Mark S. Frankel
"There is a growing consensus in America that improvements to the election process are very much needed," said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program. "Yet, surprisingly, so little is known about the fundamentals—the accuracy, reliability, and security of voting technologies and election administration. More research and greater understanding of the U.S. voting system are imperative in order to implement effective changes."
The idea for the database emerged in the aftermath of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, where a close campaign in Florida and breakdowns in the state's voting system yielded a result that was too close—and too unclear—to call by conventional means.
In 2002, the U.S. Congress approved and then-President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, an initiative to upgrade voting systems and improve standards for administering elections. The new initiative provided funds for improving elections, and the National Science Foundation opened a collaboration with AAAS to obtain a comprehensive view of available research on voting.
In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, AAAS convened a workshop at which 18 experts called for a course of research and reform to make election results more reliable and to promote better access by voters, especially those who historically have encountered impediments to voting. A report summarizing the workshop was issued in October 2004.
A little more than two years later, extensive problems were reported during the 2006 mid-term elections, 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 found that such problems affected tens of thousands of voters in more than 25 states.
A few weeks later, AAAS, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened a workshop in Washington, D.C., to expand on the work done in 2004 and chart a course of research for improving the voting process. Some 40 policy-makers, elected officials, election administrators, scholars, and activists concluded that elections need a 21st-century makeover—better technology, more training for election workers, and a renewed commitment to ballot box access and accuracy. To achieve that, participants said researchers and election administrators need to collaborate more closely to assess problems and find practical solutions. The new database has been designed to support that collaborative relationship.
"A major complaint we got from election officials at our 2006 workshop was that election research is not their arena—they don't necessarily know how to get access to it, where to find it," said Frankel. "This is a real attempt to transfer academic research into the hands of people who can use it."
The database, in Frankel's view, will be "a bridge between the two communities." Election administrators at any level, along with others interested in the field, will find a broad collection at the new Web site.
Among the general fields of research:
"I have no doubt that there will be a lot of people who will find this a valuable resource," Frankel said. "We hope they'll pass the word on to their colleagues and others who might be interested. By having it in one place and readily accessible, it should help bridge the gap between policy and knowledge. And it might help us make more well-informed decisions."