Catalyst Spring 2018
Final Analysis

Real Electoral Reform Requires Science

By Michael Latner

Photo: Ja-Rei Wang/UCS

Unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election—and verified foreign intervention—have brought unprecedented attention to the US electoral system. Less discussed, however, is the fact that the last decade has also seen large-scale transformation of the legal procedures used to administer elections. Electoral laws shape the composition of electoral districts, and thus the legislators who oversee state and federal public policies can affect us all. Shortsighted electoral “reform” can make our electoral systems vulnerable to inequalities in participation, violations of voting rights, partisan bias, and the subversion of public policy.

To address these challenges, the Union of Concerned Scientists is bringing together scientists, election specialists, and advocates for environmental justice to better understand the impact of electoral institutions on communities across the country. Science is crucial to electoral reform: one need only look to pending Supreme Court cases concerning scientific standards for identifying and preventing partisan gerrymandering. As a voting rights fellow with UCS, I am overseeing a research project over the next 18 months on how disenfranchisement occurs in tandem with environmental injustice.

There is little understanding of the role current electoral laws play in shaping political participation among populations historically targeted for voter suppression, particularly African Americans. At the same time, we have strong evidence of the overall impact that state election practices have on voter turnout. For example, we know that participatory election procedures reduce inequalities in turnout and representation. Examples include the automatic voter registration recently enacted in California and Oregon, the acceptance of election-day voter registration, and the timing of local elections to coincide with state and federal balloting.

Photo: Associated Press/John Minchillo

My team will conduct research to better understand the positive and negative impacts recent changes in election laws have had on registration and eligibility. We’ll document the impact of these changes across states, congressional districts, and communities in order to recommend reforms that actually enhance the performance and legitimacy of elections across the country.

Even as new threats emerge that could weaken free and fair elections in the United States, adapting our institutions to meet these challenges can provide a strong foundation upon which to base the smart policy solutions we need. By advocating for science-based reforms, we can bring down the barriers that inhibit participation; ensure secure, free, and fair elections; and empower all Americans to play a greater role in protecting our collective interests.

Michael Latner is a Kendall Fellow at UCS focusing on voting rights. He is currently on sabbatical from California Polytechnic State University, where he is an associate professor of political science and public policy. Read more from Michael on our blog, The Equation.