Why is the UK ahead of the US in research on election reform?

First off, remember that the United States has had two major debacles in national elections in recent years — the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. These two debacles have spawned some significant research, and some significant legislation (especially the Help America Vote Act). But the UK has not experienced similar debacles in national elections, and yet their Electoral Commission is engaged in a sweeping and informative research-based policy development process. This is evident in the Pippa Norris paper that Thad discussed yesterday. The UK’s Electoral Commission got started in 2000, and it is clear they are well ahead of their US counterparts in generating electoral reforms that are backed by evidence, data and research.

Why has the US lagged so far behind the UK in serious scientific research on our electoral process? Compare the Electoral Commission’s page on election reform research to the US’s Election Assistance Commission , which to date has issued only two research contracts that we know of (one being the 2004 post-election administrative survey and the other being a provisional balloting study) and is only now beginning to request proposals for the many other research projects it is supposed to spearhead as required by HAVA (most recently a “Request for Proposals” for a study on free postage for absentee ballots). While we are happy to see the US EAC initiate some research projects, it is unclear what the EAC’s research strategy is based on the limited number of projects they have supported.

The only other federal research entity that has stepped up to the plate to provide research funding for election issues in the US is the National Science Foundation. Until recently, the NSF has had a limited role in funding research in this area, only providing small grants for very discrete projects (funding the IPI’s Internet voting report in 2001, and more recently an effort by the National Academy of Sciences on e-voting). However, the NSF last week issued one major grant to Johns Hopkins University for studying voting technology (we’ll have more to say about this specific grant later). It is great to see the NSF engaging in these issues, but again, we need a greater investment in resources for basic social science research and technology development on election issues, and for this investment to be focused on high priority areas of concern.

In our book on Internet voting, “Point, Click and Vote”, we argued that the US needs a strong research-based program to provide a solid foundation for the development of public policy on election reform. To date, we have yet to see the federal goverment develop a coherent research plan for understanding our election process. Why the UK has developed a strong research-based policy process, and the US has not, we leave as a question for future research.