Philanthropy Seeks Scientific Rigor on the Battlefield of American Elections


If you’ve followed the news at all over past few weeks, it’s probably a little hard to envision a reality in which the debate over how U.S. elections are administered is rooted in scientific analysis and hard evidence. 

But that’s one outcome that a new philanthropy-backed research center at MIT hopes to achieve. Thanks to a $1.4 million establishing grant from the Hewlett Foundation, and support from the Joyce Foundation, the MIT Election Data and Science Lab launched this year with a mission to advance and disseminate scientific knowledge about the conduct of elections. 

“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,” said founding professor Charles Stewart III in the lab’s announcement.

With discussion of our election process at a boiling point, in large part due to a president repeatedly making delusional claims of election fraud, it’s a rough time, but perhaps the perfect time, to establish an independent stronghold for empirical analysis of how elections are administered. 

The main source of the lab’s funding comes from a unique program that launched at Hewlett in 2014 called the Madison Initiative, which seeks in a nonpartisan way to address the “intense political polarization and hyper-partisanship,” mainly as it applies to the functioning (or lack thereof) of the U.S. Congress. The relevance of the MIT lab, as Hewlett explains it, is that the conduct of elections impacts public trust in American democracy.

It’s worth mentioning that Inside Philanthropy has a little history with the Madison Initiative. Back when the program launched, publisher David Callahan respectfully hammered Hewlett for tiptoeing around the fact that the GOP's extremist lurch to the right since the mid-1990s is what's mainly undermined the traditional give-and-take of U.S. politics. The program’s director Daniel Stid made an equally spirited response defending the concept of nonpartisan support for the functioning of representative democracy. I recommend reading them both below, as they’re quite relevant in the Trump era. 


Particularly as they relate to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab (MEDSL), I think both parties’ points are important to consider (how nonpartisan of me, right?). 

For one, I generally agree with David that the concept of hyper-partisanship is all too often a euphemism for the current Republican Party being off the rails, with no apparent interest in moderation, a disturbing embrace of intolerance, and an open disdain for governing. Note that even after eight years of relentless obstruction, Democrats perked up at the idea of compromising with Trump, of all people, on an infrastructure bill and other issues—a marked contrast to the GOP's drive to ensure Obama's failure from the get-go. And just this week, a number of top Democratic senators have vowed to give Trump's SCOTUS pick a careful look—after Mitch McConnell blocked Obama's nominee for a year. And let's not forget how the the Freedom Caucus almost caused the U.S. to default on its national debt. The neutral premise of the Madison Initiative seems out of sync with a growing pile of evidence that the modern GOP has lost its mind, and certainly its belief in compromise. 

But at the same time, the need to defend the structures and processes of our democracy is more important than ever, and in that sense, Hewlett's grantmaking for things like MEDSL feels very relevant. We do need mechanisms and containers for work that will shore up the infrastructure of a republic that is taking blows during the knockdown drag-out that’s underway. God willing, Republicans and conservatives will one day not be ruled by Trumpists or Tea Party absolutists, and our structures will need to survive for that day. 

I hadn’t thought of this as a role for the Madison Initiative, but you can imagine it almost like a mechanic for democracy. Because as explosive as American elections have become, they’re also just mammoth undertakings and complex systems that channel millions of people. And they’re not as scientifically driven as they could be.

The MIT lab seeks to support these systems, acting as a hub for scholars, officials, citizen groups, journalists, and the public to access ironclad knowledge about elections. It aims to establish a website that can act as a portal for data serving the election community, and to unite and champion those around the country working on election reform and administration. 

It will also conduct its own original research on topics such as voting technology, lines at polling places, and the confidence of voters in the election process. An early project will use Joyce Foundation support to collect and share data on elections in Midwestern states. 

Another compelling feature is that 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.” Roadside assistance.

Of course, we’ve written, and will continue to make the case, that funders need to be more aggressive in their opposition to Trump’s agenda. Their intentions to remain nonpartisan will likely become impossible in the face of the existential threat to issues they care about. That’s true when it comes to supporting democratic function, too. For example, Trump is already building his case for greater voter suppression of low-income people and minorities. 

But another important role that’s emerging for funders in the Trump era is the defense of empirical knowledge itself. We do need institutions that can still make the case: this is real and you can trust us. In coming elections, the existence of objective facts will again be under heavy attack. The need exists in the tech space, in media, and in academia to come through as guardians of factual information.