Science

The Science of Elections

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Science has always been political. The Enlightenment brought forth a series of revolutions that transformed both our understanding of the universe and our role in it. New scientific discoveries often threaten the justification for power of those in authority, placing scientists at the center of politics. Galileo’s confrontation with the Catholic Church comes immediately to mind, but tensions between scientists and political authorities erupt with relative frequency.

One of the early figures of the English Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes, fled to Paris over concern about how his political works would be taken by Parliament (Hobbes was a royalist, and hostile to the Catholic Church). This was not without good reason, as Bertrand Russell would later recall in The Impact of Science on Society:

“After the Plague and the Great Fire, a House of Commons Committee inquired into the causes of those misfortunes, which were generally attributed to divine displeasure, though it was not clear to what the displeasure was due. The Committee decided that what most displeased the Lord was the works of Mr. Thomas Hobbes. It was decreed that no work of his should be published in England. This measure proved effective: there has never since been a plague or Great Fire in London.”

Some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century were vocal advocates of political freedom and democracy. Growing up in Russia-controlled Poland, Marie Curie attended a clandestine “floating university” that circumvented the restrictive educational system, and she was an opponent of authoritarianism throughout her entire, two-Nobel-Prize-winning life. While neither Albert Einstein nor Stephen Hawking were ever photographed at a Vietnam protest with Vanessa Redgrave, both were peace activists and staunch defenders of democracy.

In recent decades, political scientists have worked to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, developing statistical estimates of voter registration, malapportionment, vote dilution and other quantitative measures of constitutional violations. To address racial gerrymandering and redistricting plans, political scientists developed ecological inference procedures, and formal models of electoral system performance based on the relationship between votes and seats.

To address racial gerrymandering and redistricting plans, political scientists developed ecological inference procedures to estimate racially polarized voting, and models of electoral system performance.

Today, election science is one of the most advanced fields in the study of politics, as evidenced by the recent publication of The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems. Groundbreaking work has fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how electoral rules shape political competition, partisan representation and public policy. From electoral system design in new democracies, to effects on party systems, election administration and the reformation of old institutions, our collective knowledge is expanding at a rapid pace.

In just the last decade, major advances in the study of political gerrymandering and voting restrictions in the United States have prompted public discourse and litigation to address the impact of the strategic apportionment of partisan voters by entrenched political authorities. New measures of partisan bias, new district plan simulation techniques and estimation procedures to study the properties of districting plans, and new forensic tools to analyze voting patterns, provide ever-more effective ways of identifying electoral inequalities and irregularities.

The maturation of election science as a field partially fulfills the political scientist David Easton’s aspiration of a science that actively protects “humane values of civilization” like political equality and justice. But this responsibility extends to all practitioners and lovers of science, for the operation of science depends on the operation of democracy. Where democracy is strong, science is elevated and respected, because both share fundamental principles: respect for evidence, a commitment to openness and transparency, and not just tolerance but a “hunger for” opposing views, in the words of Harvard science and technology studies professor Sheila Jasanoff.

Being vigilant about the integrity of our elections has profound implications for all sciences. When electoral outcomes are distorted, underrepresented populations are less able to protect their interests. It is no coincidence that many of the same communities suffering high levels of toxin exposure, diminished access to nutritious foods, and poor health outcomes are the same communities targeted for voter suppression. And it is no surprise that those who manipulate election laws to entrench themselves in office are the same actors trying to subvert scientific integrity and oversight in the public sphere.

Democracy works, like science, through constant experiment. In our current experiment, we must protect both the integrity of science for the public good, and the integrity of voting rights, against those who seek to insulate themselves from evidence and accountability. You can do your part through groups like Science Rising, organizing to fight back against efforts to sideline science and subvert democratic participation in the 2018 elections. You can volunteer to help register voters and protect people from vote suppression through organizations like Election Protection. You can, and you should, because those dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge can only protect it by recognizing that it is inescapably linked to human freedom.

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