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Inaugural Election Sciences Conference Kicks Off in Portland, Oregon

By Natalie Adona / 2017 August 9th

The first conference on Election Sciences, Reform, and Administration* (ESRA) took place July 27-28, 2017 in the lovely and laid-back City of Portland, Oregon. Before I describe the conference, I’d like to take a moment to explain this “election science” thing I’m referring to, and why this conference is timely and important.

Defining election science

Election science is, in essence, the study of election administration and related matters. Studying election administration is important because it’s where the rubber meets the road; where election laws and regulations, organizational decision making, administrative efficiency, technology, voting rights, politics, and academic theories are put to the test on Election Day (or for many states, the voting period). Specifically, election scientists seek to better understand the following elements that election officials grapple with:

  • The policies and processes affecting the cost of elections;
  • The balance between efficiency, access, security, and voting rights;
  • The impact of technology on election conduct; and
  • The relationship between laws, rules, administration, and voter behavior.

Scholars who take part in this emerging discipline frequently partner with and provide support to election officials, as well as help policy experts, advocates, and other stakeholders better understand the way elections are run and the impact of policy changes on the electorate. Can administrative practices improve voter confidence? Who was added to the Oregon registration rolls when the state implemented automatic voter registration? How can local election officials reallocate resources to mitigate long lines at polling places? – This is a sample of the types of questions election scientists seek to answer and share with others.

Studying election administration and the importance of establishing networks

In the meetings that the Democracy Fund co-organized prior to this event, I gained a better understanding of the incentive structures in academia that motivate political scientists and inform their research agendas. I was surprised to find out that the number of academics studying election administration is small, and too few to successfully create an organized section. To make a long story short, this results in election scientists presenting their work at conference panels that don’t always fit neatly into established organized sections, and in front of an audience of peers that are not always able to provide nuanced feedback on the subject matter.

Providing election officials and academics the space to get to know each other on their own is key to enriching our shared understanding of election administration. In my work with the Elections team, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from several election officials from all parts of the country and the people who support improvements in elections. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from them, celebrate their successes, and listen and think carefully about their shared pain points. Because election scientists present primarily at academic conferences, it leaves little opportunity for election officials, who don’t often have the time or resources to attend, to inform research agendas and add richness and nuance to the existing body of research. And while those of us in philanthropy and in the advocacy space can serve as bridges, our networks remain fairly small. When connected with this academic community, election officials benefit from the analytical rigor and perspective on administrative processes that election scientists provide — a provision that helps administrators learn and take steps to improve their processes.

The ESRA conference

The purpose of the ESRA conference is to feature academic work in election science, not only for the benefit of scholars, but also to familiarize election officials with the work these scholars present. The conference organizers successfully brought together a mix of primarily election scientists and election officials, and also advocates, civic tech experts, and small (but mighty) group of bright young students interested in establishing their careers in academia. Because the ESRA conference was located in the West, studies about vote-by-mail, vote centers, and automatic voter registration were prominently featured – a timely regional theme that I hope will be replicated next year when the ESRA conference is held in the Midwest.

The ESRA conference included a healthy mix of panels and breakout sessions, all of which kept this group of about 50 people engaged and inspired. The sessions over the two days covered:

  • Administering Elections and Evaluating Capacity
  • Voter Registration Records and Data Administration
  • Assessing the Effectiveness of Voter Registration List Maintenance
  • Turnout in Mayoral Elections (the “Who Votes for Mayor” study)
  • Voter Identification Laws and Elections
  • New Approaches to Voter Registration and Turnout
  • Evaluating Elections Under Pressure (i.e., contingency planning and recounts)
  • Election Administration Professionalization
  • Modernizing Voter Registration (breakout session and plenary)
  • Intersection of Election Administration, Nonprofits, and Advocates
  • Alternative Polling Places of the Future (breakout session and plenary)

This inaugural conference was an enormous undertaking and was artfully planned and executed by Paul Gronke (who’s also a trusted consultant for the Democracy Fund’s Elections team) and Phil Keisling (who I hear knows a thing or two about elections) – a huge congrats to them and their team for successfully pulling off this important event. Also, it’d be remiss of me if I forgot to give a shout out to Paul Manson, Charles Stewart, Bernard Fraga, and Lonna Rae Atkeson, all of whom played a vital role in making the conference a success. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to attend, meet some smart and awesome election geeks who continue to teach me new things, represent Democracy Fund as dinner host, and speak at one of the panels. I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm and passion everyone has invested so far, and seriously hope that the heart of this scholarly effort continues to beat for years to come as new and useful research emerges.

*The ESRA conference was made possible with support from the National Science Foundation, the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, the Early Voting Information Center, the Center for Public Service at Portland State University, and the Democracy Fund.

** Photo credit goes to Cameron Wimpy, Research Director for the MIT Election and Data Science Lab.

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