Catalyst Fall 2018

Examining the Science of Voting

What’s the relationship between electoral reform and environmental justice? Just ask UCS Kendall Fellow Michael Latner.
Photo: Brian Blanco/Getty Images
By Elliott Negin

For most US college students, political science—poli sci—is a misnomer. Undergrads typically read Locke and Mill, Hamilton, Arendt, Marx. At the introductory level, poli sci is mainly about political philosophy, not science. It should be called poli phi.

At the graduate level, the quantitative aspects of the discipline are far more apparent, including a vibrant subset of poli sci that focuses on the science of electoral systems. The Union of Concerned Scientists has taken notice. Last fall, the organization selected Michael Latner, an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, as the first scientist to receive an electoral system science fellowship under our Kendall Science Fellow program.

“The voting rights debate has often focused on fairness and civil rights, but we were interested in its broader impact on democracy and science-based decisionmaking,” explains Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “In other words, how does the abrogation of voting rights affect policymaking on the wide range of issues UCS cares about? We found that there is strong quantitative science around voting rights that could help us understand the impact. And we found that working on voting rights gives us an opportunity to connect with new partners in civil society.”

Exploring the Links

Latner is uniquely equipped to help UCS enter the voting rights fray. His award-winning academic work has largely focused on how redistricting, gerrymandering, and electoral laws influence political representation. During his two-year fellowship, he is broadening the scope of his research to include the impact of electoral system bias on public health and environmental protection—two key UCS priorities.

As he puts it, “If you are concerned about environmental justice, you need to be concerned about voting rights and electoral reform.”

Latner was exposed to politics early on growing up as the son of a union pipefitter and a part-time employee in the county registrar’s office in San Bernardino, California. But it wasn’t until he was working toward his PhD in political science at the University of California–Irvine that he became fascinated by the mechanics of our electoral system.

“The two biggest influences on my career, David Easton and Rein Taagepera at UC Irvine, spent a lot of time thinking about the ‘science’ of political science,” Latner says. “David was instrumental in introducing systems theory into the study of politics. Rein, who is a physicist by training, is a pioneer in the science of electoral systems. He transformed the field by applying predictive models of system performance. Rein completely changed the way I approached my research and got me excited about studying the impact of changing electoral laws.”

Evidence-Based and Engaged

In 2007, Latner joined the faculty at California Polytechnic State University, and over the last decade he has written numerous articles for peer-reviewed journals and coauthored a book on gerrymandering. He and his coauthors are now working on a sequel, slated to come out next year.

Latner is also engaged in local politics, serving as a consultant for city council and state assembly candidates since 2010. “As a citizen,” he says, “I have a responsibility to engage. My interest in this subject is not an ‘ivory tower’ thing. That’s what attracted me to UCS. It provides a home for engaged scientists, and my mission is to advocate for evidence-based electoral reform.”

Latner’s recently published first report for UCS, Building a Healthier Democracy, found a direct correlation between suppressed voter turnout and environmentally degraded communities. Nearly two-thirds of the congressional districts with above-average levels of air pollution had below-average voter turnout in 2016. Why? “Poverty and restrictive election laws,” says Latner. “Residents in low-income communities with state-sanctioned voting barriers have less political clout. When they have less clout, their interests aren’t well represented and they are more likely to feel disenfranchised and opt out of the system. It’s a vicious cycle.” For a broader discussion about problems with US electoral systems and potential solutions, see the Q&A that follows.

Measuring the impact of election laws on participation and representation is a powerful way of quantifying injustice.

“One of the most rewarding things about my field is that it’s an objective study of institutional performance on the one hand, while being centrally concerned about justice on the other,” Latner explains. “Measuring the impact of election laws on participation and representation is a powerful way of quantifying injustice. Besides that, the ability to precisely evaluate the effectiveness of electoral law reform provides a powerful tool to design institutions that reflect our professed principles of equality and fairness. So it’s a rewarding scientific pursuit, and it has real-world consequences.”

It’s Time to Change the Way We Vote

Q&A with Michael Latner

Photo: Ja-Rei Wang/UCS

President Trump claimed that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 general election. He even convened a commission to investigate voter fraud, which was ultimately disbanded without finding any evidence of widespread impropriety. Is there any reason to believe such claims?

Michael Latner: The president and other voter fraud conspiracy theorists are living in a fantasy world. The conspiracy theory itself was put on trial this year when Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, cochair of the president’s fraud commission and a leading voter fraud alarmist, was held in contempt for disregarding a judge’s orders to notify thousands of Kansans that they were eligible voters.

In June 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and, since then, the Supreme Court has upheld Ohio’s voter roll purge and Texas’s gerrymandered districts, despite a lower court ruling that Texas had discriminated against Latino voters. Is there hard evidence that election practices such as these are suppressing the vote?

Michael Latner: Vote suppression means preventing eligible voters from exercising their right to vote. In Ohio, aggressive voter file purging has kept thousands of eligible voters off the rolls. Unfortunately, unreasonable practices like that are likely to spread to other states now that the Supreme Court has upheld Ohio’s voter roll purge.

The impact of gerrymandering—racial or partisan—isn’t to suppress the vote, but to dilute it. Vote dilution occurs when—even if everyone voted—the value of individual votes is diluted as a result of “cracking and packing” voters geographically. The clearest example is when you have a state that is 50-50 in terms of party support and the party that controls the state legislature cracks up the opposition party’s voters geographically, packing them into just a few districts where they may be 80 percent or more of the voters, while in many other districts they make up less than 50 percent of voters. That strategy allows the governing party to take a majority of seats, sometimes even without a majority of overall votes.

Many US voting machines are outdated and vulnerable to hacking. We already have evidence that Russia has tried to hack election software and records. Is that an issue you plan to address?

Michael Latner: Voting machine security and technology is not my area of expertise, but it’s clear that these machines are more vulnerable than most people realize.

Several organizations, most notably the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on the Future of Voting, have convened a series of meetings to bring together experts from a variety of fields to discuss measures to enhance security, addressing everything from cyber and digital vulnerabilities to the adoption of voting centers and other administrative innovations. These meetings have led to proposals for meaningful, sound reform.

Second, there are potential policy changes that would improve federal oversight of both state election administration and private-sector election technology. For example, the Department of Homeland Security is now developing a program that would enable national labs to analyze flaws in election security.

UCS should support efforts to strengthen these kinds of programs and ensure that Congress funds them. UCS also could play an important role by making sure our government protects the public interest when overseeing election technology reforms.

I focus more on key institutional electoral reforms that could strengthen the integrity of US elections. UCS supporters can promote a number of these reforms, such as automatic voter registration, to build more comprehensive, secure eligible-voter databases. Other registration and voting modernization measures with sound scientific backing include preregistration, early and weekend voting, and mail-in ballot access, all of which would relieve the pressure of processing ballots on election day.

What is the best way to remedy the gerrymandering problem?

Michael Latner: There is no single best approach. There are multiple criteria—including equal population, contiguity, compactness, and fairness—that can be optimized, but they can’t all be optimized together, so there are trade-offs. Practically speaking, it’s not difficult to create fair maps, that is, maps that treat both party’s voters equally, and for me, equality is the ultimate metric that we should optimize, because that is the goal of electoral representation. But that might require funny-looking districts, or districts that include communities with very different demographics and political preferences.

Crucially, these trade-offs are an inherent feature, not a bug, of the single-seat districts that US electoral systems typically rely on. Each district sends only one representative to Congress. If we want to more accurately represent political preferences over geography, we have to make geography less important, and the only way to do that is to move to multi-seat, proportional electoral formulas.

Consider a state with five congressional districts where candidates from the dominant party win all five districts by getting 60 percent of the vote. Their party would control 100 percent of the state’s overall representation even though 40 percent of the state’s residents voted for the other party’s candidates. Conversely, if the five single-seat districts were combined into one five-seat district encompassing the entire state, that same statewide vote share would produce three seats—60 percent—for the majority party and two seats—40 percent—for the minority party. Everyone’s vote counts and there is real competition.

This is not anything radical or new. In fact, the United States has quite an interesting history of advocacy for proportional elections going back to the founding of the republic. But as politics have become more polarized, and two-party competition becomes more strained, the defects of our electoral system have become more pronounced.

In the work you’ve already done for UCS, you found that in states with voting barriers, low-income communities have less political clout and higher levels of pollution. What can be done to remedy that?

Michael Latner: Communities should have a say in policies that affect their daily lives. Automatic voter registration, increased ballot access, and creating nonpartisan, proportional election districts would encourage voter participation, which in turn would put pressure on elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels to pay more attention to their constituents.

Electoral reform may not be as sexy as clean water, but if we want clean water, we need clean election laws.

When it comes to environmental justice, reformers need to understand that they can advocate and organize all day, but when they’re working in a system that distorts representation via gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like, they won’t get very far. Electoral reform may not be as sexy as clean water, but if we want clean water, we need clean election laws.

Fortunately, we now have a mature scientific approach that can be applied to our electoral systems.

In closing, do you have any advice for UCS members regarding the upcoming election?

Michael Latner: Vote early and often! OK, don’t vote often, but vote!