Reflections on ESRA 2022

Our project coordinator narrates the highlights of the 2022 Election Science, Reform, and Administration Conference.

Summertime. It's the season we all know and love, when the fancies of everyone turn to one subject, and one subject only: election science.

Specifically, election science, election reform, election administration. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: "Don't spend all summer thinking and talking about elections. Do more constructive things with your time, like surfing, barbecuing, or playing pickleball." 

Well, tough luck, guidance counselor voice. Because this year, for the first time, I attended the 6th annual Election Sciences, Reform, and Administration (ESRA) conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. The result? More election discussion than the most reasonable onlooker could fathom. You cannot imagine, nor could I, how deep the waters of electoral curiosity go. Reader, it is a bottomless science. Based on what I read and saw at the ESRA conference, the number of questions must be inexhaustible. If you go trawling in those waters, in the famous words of one ship captain, "You're going to need a bigger boat."

For this reason, as Program Coordinator for the MIT Election Data + Science Lab (MEDSL), I am pleased that the Lab made a very strong showing at the affair. Our travel team numbered ten, but we were a small drop in the ocean of ESRA. If you haven't been to the conference before, let me emphasize the wide variety of attendees. There were scholars, election officials, staff members of nonprofits, policy wonks. This was the election universe equivalent of the Oscars, to put it mildly. All the stars were present. It was a real red carpet moment, if the Academy Awards had taken place over a very hot series of days in North Carolina.

The Lab team got there on Wednesday, after the collection, and the subsequent drinking, of vast amounts of coffee. As soon as we arrived in North Charlotte we whisked away from the airport to taxis and subsequently the air-conditioned chambers of the newly-constructed UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel. 

We were all delighted not just by the tasteful, modern, and polished surroundings, but also by the fact that we were not in the oven-fire of the temperature outdoors, which eventually cooled down to a peaceful resting level of approximately twelve million degrees Kelvin. I suspect, but cannot prove, that several birds must have spontaneously combusted in mid-flight during our three days in North Carolina, but that's neither here nor there: ESRA is a celebration of election science, not bird-science. 

As mentioned above, the primary attendees of the conference were researchers, scholars, and election officials. The most wonderful aspect of ESRA is that the conference builds useful bridges between the people who practice, and the people who study, elections. It's no surprise that elections are a hot topic in 2022. The salience of the entire subject was on everybody's mind, and was addressed with the appropriate amount of gravity. 

I am hardly objective, but in those rooms, I think, there was more considered wisdom on the topic of U.S. elections than anywhere else in the world. Over the next three days, MEDSL would see many, many examples of such insight. 

Of course, doing justice to the brilliant presentations and papers of ESRA is beyond the space or scope of one single blog entry; what follows is only one person's narrow experience. As a newcomer, among my personal highlights: the Kimball, Manion, Anthony, and Udani work on St. Louis polling; the ballot secrecy paper by Trey Hood, Eli Mckown-Dawson, et al; Dari Sylvester Tran and Melissa Michelson's study of poll workers (and their training); MEDSL's Alex Flores sharing his work on polling place changes; and Nadine Gibson's eye-opening "Perceptions of Election Fraud Across Voting Methods." 

ESRA is a compact conference; each day’s sessions are packed end-to-end with interesting research and new ideas.. After the initial day's meet-and-greet, the first panels followed in quick succession. Among the most interesting, in our biased opinion, was "Election Official Concerns Now and Later," which was chaired by MEDSL's own Samuel Baltz, and featured a paper by the Lab's Joelle Gross titled: "Who makes threats and what prompts them? The rise of hateful attacks against election officials explored through Twitter data."
The session also featured a striking presentation by UNCC's Suzanne Leland on succession planning for local governments, and a paper by Cook, Stavisky, et al which explored the intersections of tech, policy, management, and law in the electoral future of New York state. At the same time, MEDSL's Charles Stewart and BU Law School’s Christina James presented work in a concurrent session explaining changes in election laws post-2020.

Also worth mentioning was a Thursday roundtable on Philanthropy and Elections, which featured North Carolina Election Director Karen Brinson Bell and Christian Grose, the academic director of USC's Schwarzenegger Center. During a moderated session by Mitchell Brown, Bell was clear about what was required: "We need to fund elections." Or, as Dr. Grose put it: "If you don’t like philanthropic funds being used to support election infrastructure and administration, increase the state budget for elections."

Walking into the panel space, by the way, was an education in itself. For the first time, I got a real sense of just how many people would be attending the conference. Having attended conferences where the attendees could fit into a small apartment, this room seemed to contain roughly a hundred-plus people. 

The presentations throughout the conference were merely the beginning of the conversation, not the end. In a very polite way, the questions flew both fast and furious. ESRA also features a great deal of candor: one memorable mic drop happened when state election officials mentioned that they had tried to purchase Google and Facebook ads to counteract misinformation with facts. But those platforms–in their own efforts to control the spread of malicious lies–repeatedly presented complicated hoops for officials to jump through, requested personal information, and unwittingly blocked every attempt by the state to rectify the circulating untruths. 

Following lunch came those two words that everybody was waiting to hear: poster session. Well, maybe four words: "poster session and caffeine." The poster round featured heroic presentations by young scholars, and a slightly less heroic performance by the onlookers who had to both pay attention to posters and also balance the double duties of coffee and cheesecake. (It's worth mentioning to anyone who's on the fence regarding electoral science: the food at ESRA conference was quite good. That's the kind of detailed real-time no-holds-barred truth bombs that you can only get here at the MEDSL blog.) 

The poster session marked a time for new scholars to shine; attendees walked from spot to spot, as complicated and fascinating investigations into every nook-and-cranny of election science were compressed into conversations on every side. All of which were interesting, and the cumulative effect of so much study on so many varied topics might well have made the watcher's head swim.  

Again, the full spectrum of poster topics cannot be covered in this space, but notable ones for this onlooker included (but were not limited to) Stephanie Puello's work on the role of partisanship in voter registration; MIT's Jacob Jaffe on the accuracy of vote tabulation; Phoebe Henninger's "Classifying Party Involvement in Election Administration," and Emma Lurie's poster on search engine entanglement with ballot propositions. Finally, Joshua Ferrer surprised me with his findings on appointing election officials. 

After that, ESRA attendees gathered together at local hangout the Famous Toastery, which featured a man-made lake, several different kinds of snack cheeses, and an impressive strawberry shortcake. Friday saw interesting followups on election integrity, pandemic elections, and the intricacies of postal voting -- as well as a discussion by thought-leaders on how to institutionalize ESRA (now in its sixth year) as a regular conference for many years to come. 

One more fact worth mentioning: even if you have no interest in this topic, ESRA is worth attending for the audience. 

Being at ESRA gives you the kind of thrill you can only get when you're around very smart people who are being very practical about something they care a great deal about. You know that particular issue that you and your friend circle are intensely interested in? That subject that you've had hour-long discussions over? Imagine the most in-depth discussion you've had on that topic, but it lasts for three days and has huge consequences for the society you live in. That's ESRA. I'll be happy to attend next year too. 

Jason Rhode is Program Coordinator at the MIT Election Data + Science Lab. He joined the Lab in 2022 after working as National Coordinator at Princeton University's Gerrymandering Project. He has been professionally involved in both media and politics.


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