In 2000, hanging chads clouded the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 2016, allegations of Russian hacking swirled around Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Meanwhile, long lines continue to plague polling stations, possibly alienating voters and overwhelming poll workers. Even in a democracy like the United States, elections can be fraught with controversy.
Not if the MIT Election Data and Science Lab (MEDSL) can help it. Launched in January 2017 and helmed by founder Charles Stewart III, MEDSL hopes to bring greater efficiency to elections through science and community engagement. Housed within MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and established with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, the lab collects and disseminates data about elections, primarily in the US, with a grounding in scientific research.
The initiative comes at a time when US citizens’ trust in the election process is more at stake than ever, says Stewart, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT. “Every election has something wrong. We often don’t know what it will be, so the academic community and the research base are left trying to respond and scramble.
“After 2016, two new issues have emerged: the ‘hacking’ of the election process and charges of fraud associated with voter registration. Historically, the academic world responded to these types of new issues very slowly and inefficiently, because no one had flexible resources to move quickly into new fields,” Stewart says.
“Now, the presence of the lab has given me the opportunity to focus on new issues like these as research topics.” He adds, “The hope is that by 2020, we’ll have an ongoing research operation so that whatever the problem is, we’ll be there to guide both policy making and a public discussion.”
To foster this kind of nimbleness, first and foremost, the nonpartisan lab disburses research grants through a New Initiatives Fund. It will award $400,000 over the coming three years to researchers at MIT and beyond studying topics like voucher programs for candidates and the cost of running elections.
In addition, MEDSL has several initiatives building on its core research activities. For example, the lab offers a resource portal for a group crucial to the democratic process: “Election administrators are being better educated and are more likely to want to manage through metrics and the best scientific literature,” Stewart notes. “However, there’s a chasm between academic resources and practitioners.” One way the lab is helping to bridge that gap is by assembling scientific tools to help local officials better manage long lines at polling sites. The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), which Stewart also co-directs, developed a web-based application focusing on queue theory and protocols to help election officials monitor and improve wait times and allocate proper resources.
“We worked with state and local officials to teach them how to gather data, to see how long waits were, and to identify where problems were. This is how fundamental science and engineering can be then moved into polling places,” he says. MEDSL also helps to connect like-minded individuals and institutions. Stewart is building what he calls an “election science research network” among scholars throughout the country to encourage the sharing of data and analysis. This will launch next winter. Looking ahead, Stewart also plans to convene statisticians, social scientists, and legal experts to discuss the scientific and legal frameworks needed to enforce properly tallied voting.
“One technical issue that has come out of the 2016 election is whether elections are audited after the fact and, if they are, how they are audited. We’re planning on hosting a public conference next year to bring together academics, citizens, and the press to educate people about techniques and to puzzle together how to get them adopted by election officials,” he says. “We want to review the state of the science and also try to understand what it would take in terms of legal frameworks to respond to cybersecurity concerns and techniques to deal with hacking—this is an area where we could have a real impact.”
One of MEDSL’s most valuable overarching functions, according to Stewart, is to serve as a data archive and clearinghouse. “A major goal is to make election data available to the general public and not just to the political consultants who charge an arm and a leg to their clients for it.”
In one timely example of this, MEDSL is working to gather returns at the precinct level from the 2016 election and to publish them in an opensource format, the value of which extends beyond scholarship. “States and localities don’t publish election results in a uniform fashion, so just gathering and processing election results is a major service to numerous communities. This data will be the major input into the upcoming round of redistricting that will follow the 2020 election,” says Stewart, explaining that open-source redistricting programs “serve as an important check against partisan and incumbentprotection gerrymanders” by allowing members of the general public to put forth their own proposals. “The availability of this data in a public format will allow the civic groups that are trying to draw the public into the process to do their work. It’s really impossible to do so without data,” Stewart adds. “We’re really upping the game.”