Seeking Scholars: Apply for MEDSL’s 2018 New Initiatives Grant

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Our favorite festive season falls between February and April every year. It’s not President’s Day, or even Patriots’ Day here in our home base of Massachusetts. It’s New Initiatives Grant season!

Each year, we invite scholars who are investigating US elections and election reform to apply for our New Initiatives in Election Science Grant. As the name implies, we started the grant to encourage new approaches to the scientific study of elections and election reform. It provides direct support for research projects that focus on an aspect of US elections and election management; in particular, we give priority to new scholars such as Ph.D. candidates and junior faculty members.

We offer these grants because we know that the ways that elections are carried out are incredibly, increasingly important. How do new forms of technology affect the lines at polling centers? What effects do new registration processes have on voter confidence? Do different methods of voting (vote-by-mail, for example,) have an impact on voter turn-out? What unintended consequences do any of these mechanisms have, for better or worse?

We’re dedicated to pursuing and encouraging research that’s relevant to improving elections for everybody, and the grant supports that, allowing us to broaden the conversation on election science with new voices. Some of the new voices we look for aren’t even from political science or public administration, which is where the study of elections has historically been focused. Research from other sectors — like psychology, anthropology, mathematics, or computer science — can also have a terrific impact on election science when it’s focused on different aspects of elections.

Hard to believe? Hardly. Our first round of grants, which were announced a year ago, looked at topics that ranged widely across themes and disciplines. Some looked at voters, studying the effects that state voter ID requirements are having on participation and trust in democratic systems, or examining perceptions of voter fraud. Others focused on the maintenance systems for voter lists and how jurisdictions ensure the accuracy of voter registration records. Technology factored into more than a few — creating an algorithm to generate precinct boundaries automatically, for example, or carrying out an examination of the current quality of voting equipment. From campaign finance to the reasons voters choose one method of voting over another, our grant is helping scholars push the boundaries of our understanding further.

…But don’t take our word for it. We spoke with a few of the recipients of the 2017 New Initiatives Grants last week, to get their thoughts on how the grant has helped their research and communities.

“This grant is one of the few that cares about the nuts and bolts of elections, the functional structure of elections,” said Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston. Dr. Thessalia Merivaki, an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, agreed: “The New Initiatives Grant is one of the few, or the only, grant that specifically targets issues relating to election administration, such as voter list maintenance.”

Systematic data collection is crucial for this area of research, yet seldom available, she pointed out. Without funding, conducting research becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. Dr. Kyle Endres, a postdoctoral associate at the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology, underscored that, sharing frankly that without financial support from the grant, the research he is working on to inform registered voters in Virginia about the state’s photo ID requirements and boost turnout in the gubernatorial elections would have been totally out of reach.

Of course, each of the 14 proposals funded by the grant last year will have effects that reach beyond the scholars who received funding. The impacts of taking a deep, scientific look at issues that are often the subject of heated and emotional debate can be profound.

Dr. Abby Wood, an associate professor at USC Gould School of Law, is working as part of a team to research campaign finance vouchers with funding from the 2017 round of grants. The grant allowed them to access data that’s made it possible for them to look at how financial disclosure laws impact donors — in particular, people who make small contributions or who support unpopular or ideologically extreme candidates. Campaign finance is an evergreen topic for political arguments, one which has First Amendment implications. It matters to voters, to legislators, and to those who review the laws of the land. “Challenges to disclosure are working their way through the courts,” she said, and because of that, “we want to help provide a measure of the “chilling effect” of campaign finance disclosure, if any.” Once complete, the courts can take their research into account when considering whether disclosure burdens free speech.

Dr. Wood also added: “The most important thing our paper does is provide a blueprint for future researchers who want to engage the question again as these campaign finance voucher systems proliferate and mature.”

Which, at the end of the day, is an integral part of what the New Initiative Grant is meant to do. It’s also encouraging folks in the research world and the administration world to interact: “As a researcher,” Dr. Merivaki said, “I aim to identify the best practices among local jurisdictions and build a bridge between academics and local election administrators,” connecting them with the resources and capacity they need to evaluate the performance of their jurisdiction.

As the research teams funded through the 2017 round of grants push forward, we’re over the moon about having a whole new opportunity to fund more research under the 2018 New Initiatives in Election Science Program!

A total of up to $100,000 is available this year (individual grants will be capped at $20,000,) to fund systematic research on the conduct of elections in the United States. The application deadline is April 2, 2018 — if you’re interested, don’t wait to apply! We can’t wait to see what the new grant season has in store.

Claire DeSoi is the communications director for the MIT Election Data + Science Lab.


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