Learning from Elections
The 2020 election provided numerous challenges to the administration of elections in the United States.
The beginning of the presidential primary season coincided with the first reported deaths from COVID-19. The resulting public health emergency confronted everyone involved in setting and implementing election policy—from governors to precinct poll workers—with fundamental decisions that would affect whether the primaries could be held as planned and ultimately whether the general election would be accessible to all. In the end, primaries were held, nominees were selected, and a record number of Americans voted.
Ensuring that all eligible Americans would have access to a safe and reliable method of voting was an enormous undertaking, and required every state to at least alter standard operating procedures, and for most states, to change laws, regulations, and practices substantially. For the first time in history, most Americans cast their ballots before Election Day.
With these seismic shifts in election administration and in the spirit of continually improving election administration using an evidence-based approach, 2020 is a laboratory beyond compare.
About the Project
The Learning from Elections project seeks to use the present moment to lay an empirical foundation for the improvement of elections in the U.S. It is not blind to the challenges of conducting empirically focused research under the current circumstances, nor to the challenges of proposing empirically grounded paths to improvement. It does proceed with an assumption—or at least a maintained hypothesis—that there is an audience (even a hunger) for fact-based analysis of election administration and the potential for those paths to inform the evolution of law and professional practice in the coming years.
Through the project, we seek to support research that illuminates how the evolving election administration landscape has changed in recent years. Most of these changes coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, broadly considered, but election administration was evolving even before then. We are especially interested in projects that focus on mail balloting, voter registration, polling places and voter experience, administrative capacity, and combating misinformation about election administration. This project aims to support research that is grounded in the methods and theories of social science while simultaneously aiming to improve the practice of elections in the short- and medium terms.
Under this initiative, we seek to engage researchers who have a long track record in working in the fields of election administration and election science as well as those whose expertise has been focused on adjacent fields, but who wish to contribute to efforts to strengthen the practice of elections in the U.S. We anticipate that most applications will come from college and university researchers, but we welcome applications from other non-profit research entities, as well.
Call for Research Proposals
Through this initiative, we are seeking to fund research that addresses two types of topics:
- processes of election administration that were the focus of rapid innovation during the 2020 election or attention from state legislatures since then, and
- long-standing topics of concern to election administration that have recently “flown under the radar” but may now be ripe for reconsideration.
There are four broad themes or categories we are particularly interested in funding:
- Mail balloting
- Voter registration
- Polling places and voter experience
- Institutional capacity
- Misinformation and trust
For more information about the opportunity, please see the full call for proposals at the link below:
Submit a Proposal
Proposals will be evaluated in two rounds. To be considered in the first round, proposal were due no later than July 22, 2022. The deadline for the second round closed on August 12, 2022. Funding decisions for each round will be made within a few weeks of each deadline.
There were 2 informational webinars for those interested in applying for grant funding under this initiative. These webinars have been recorded; the recordings are available below:
If you have questions about the grants or the program overall, please email any questions to the following:
We will post (anonymized) questions and answers here as an ongoing FAQ.
Q: Is there a limit or specific format that you would prefer for the short bios required?
A: For PIs, a short CV should be sufficient (such as the two-page CV required for NSF proposals). Alternatively, a two-page narrative bio would be fine as well. For non-PIs, a paragraph or two describing their background and qualifications would be sufficient.
Q: Can a proposal include a request for funds to pay salary for a collaborating academic at a different institution from the principal investigator?
A: Yes, as long as it is included and detailed in the budget.
Q: Do references count toward the ten-page proposal limit?
A: Yes, the ten pages includes references.
Q: Does the ten-page limit include the budget, or can that be attached as a separate item?
A: The budget is not included in the ten-page proposal limit.
Q: Is there a limit to the number of proposals that can be submitted?
A: No, there's no limit to the number of proposals that can be submitted.
Q: Does research on the physical security of election infrastructure fit within the scope? For example: the safety of clerks and staff, equipment storage, or balancing public access with security concerns.
A: Yes. Broadly, this would seem to fall under the topic of "institutional capacity."
Q: What are the rules regarding institutional indirect or overhead costs?
A: Our grant agreement with the Election Performance Project limits us to paying 10% in overhead.
Q: If we include a subaward in our budget, how should we calculate the indirect costs? If the primary institution calculates a 10% overhead on the total subaward amount, can the subawardee also include 10% indirect costs in its budget for its own use?
A: We would prefer not to double-pay indirect costs. So, we would prefer that you not add 10% to the subaward, if the amount sent to them includes the 10% indirect charge at their institution.
Q: Are graduate students able to apply for these grants?
A: Yes, graduate students are eligible to apply for the grants. Please include a letter from your advisor indicating that they support the application (the letter doesn’t have to count against the 10 pages).
Q: Because the earliest date the grant can be awarded is after my universities’ first day of classes this fall, I would probably be unable to get my university to grant me a buy-out in the fall to work on the research. In that case, could I use buy-out funds for the spring?
A: We understand that universities have rules that govern when faculty salaries can be paid and when release time can be granted. These rules often don’t reflect well when effort is actually devoted to research. So long as the proposal indicates when the work will actually be conducted and the description seems workable, we will leave it to the researcher and his or her institution to work out the details of when release time or salary supplements can be paid.
Q: Our project involves data that we would receive on the condition that we not release it to a third party, such as voter file data. How important is the requirement that all data created as a part of the research be published on the Harvard Dataverse be to the evaluation of projects?
A: There are two factors to be considered in answering this question. The first is that one goal of this program is to build up the infrastructure of election science. The availability of common datasets is an important part of that infrastructure. We therefore regard this requirement to be a central requirement of the program. The second factor is that in some cases, the proposed research may be impossible to perform without access to data that may not be made public, either according to law or commercial license. In other cases, prudence may caution against publishing data that contains personally identifiable information, even if the data are already public. MEDSL is particularly sensitive to the dissemination of voter file information, even from states with low barriers to acquiring the data and few restrictions on their use. If the “data publication” requirement is difficult or impossible to meet, the application should flag the issue and the proposers should assume that MEDSL will work with the research team to develop a reasonable workaround that meets the goals of the grant program while also respecting restrictions on the data.