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S3E3 - Collaboration between Election Administrators and Election Researchers with MIT's Charles Stewart III

High Turnout Wide Margins hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke to Charles Stewart III at the National Conference of State Legislatures in August. Stewart is the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and the co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.
Rebecca Smith
High Turnout Wide Margins hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey spoke to Charles Stewart III at the National Conference of State Legislatures in August. Stewart is the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and the co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Charles Stewart III. He’s the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and the co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

They spoke about the relationship between academics studying elections and the local election administrators who are conducting them, how academic research can become functional tools for election administrators to use and how academic-election administrator collaboration could impact future elections.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Charles Stewart III: I've learned a couple of things, and the most important thing I would say is that if you want to make a difference, if you want to improve voting in the United States, you have to see the process from the perspective of the people who are in the process, and that's both voters, yes, but on a day to day basis – it's election officials.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Eric Fey: Okay, everybody, [it’s] another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. I'm Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri, and I'm here with my co-host –

Brianna Lennon: Brianna Lennon, County Clerk for Boone County, Missouri.

Charles Stewart III speaks into a microphone
Rebecca Smith
Charles Stewart III talks with High Turnout Wide Margins for the taping of the episode

Eric Fey: And our guest today is –

Charles Stewart III: I’m Charles Stewart, professor of political science at MIT.

Eric Fey: So, MIT – that is not an institution people immediately associate, I think, elections or political science or things like that. So, backing up from there, tell us how you got involved in elections, and how, how MIT is involved in it?

Charles Stewart III: Yeah, yeah, you're right. We're not known for this, or MIT is not known for elections – although I will quickly give a plug for the breadth of MIT. MIT has quite a stable of social scientists and humanists there, as well, as the engineers and scientists who get all the, get all the attention and create all the cool gadgets there. It's a great place to be.

But my interest in, well, my activity and involvement in elections does, in some ways, come out of the technology. Really. Not surprising for a lot of us in academics of my age, we got interested in the 2000 election, and the short version – and we can talk more about this – is that during the recount in Florida, the president of MIT and the president of Caltech came to the realization that the problems in Florida stemmed from a failure of technology, and it was the duty of the two greatest technological universities in America to do something about this. So, they got some money from the Carnegie Foundation, we put together something called the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which I like to call the MIT/Caltech voting technology.

Eric Fey: Laughter

Charles Stewart III: But Caltech goes first. And it was a really interesting, interdisciplinary group of people. We had designers and mathematicians, computer scientists, political scientists, economists, you know, a real – we had the science director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. We had the guy who, you know – those of us who had old IBM laptops, there was that little, almost like, looks like an eraser in the middle – the guy who held the patent on that. So a really interesting – Oh, Ron Rivest, the “R” of RSA Security, who, you know, is a founder of cybersecurity algorithms. And so it's a really incredible group of people.

And we took a look at the 2000 election. We were charged with developing the perfect voting machine, which turned out to be a stupid thing to charge us to do because we discovered in our investigations that, yeah, I mean, there were, you know, hanging chads and all that, but the problem in Florida was a systemic one, you know, the headline was “the machines,” but it was the people and it was the organization and it was the policy, and, you know, engineers – this is a thing I learned from them – engineers think systemically, and we just learned a whole bunch about the election system. That started a 20, now 23-year journey for me.

Eric Fey: Was there a time after the 2000 election when there were a number of these folks from Caltech and MIT sitting in a room and it was just some, some remedial education in election administration?

Charles Stewart III: Oh, it was from the beginning. It was totally from the beginning, and – but, you know, it was also on so many different dimensions. One of the first things we did is we had a, we had a convening at Caltech in the spring of 2001, and it had, like, policymakers from the Hill, from the states, election officials from all sorts of levels, and that was the beginning of the education and I still quote things from that convening two decades ago.

And I also think that it still took me a long time until really, I would say, after the President's Commission on Election Administration. So, that's an entire decade later, and that was when I got involved with the Commission at a very high level, you know, to travel around and listen to folks, but immediately after that – remember one of the big issues was long lines – and I got pulled into helping local jurisdictions manage their long lines and those sorts of things, and that was actually the moment in which I would go, started more frequently going to clerk's conferences, going into elections offices.

I remember, in fact, going in St. Louis. I would, just happen[ed] to be in St. Louis – this was a few years ago – on election day, and I remember you facilitated me traveling around your county.

So, it was like the mid-part of the last decade where I just started going and listening and watching and seeing what was up, and so, yeah, it took a while actually, because, I mean, academics can easily just, you know, just parachute in, we repel out, and it really was trying to actually like work with, you know, the state of Virginia, or, you know, the city of Boston, and to try to kind of really solve things – to go into a school that was causing Boston all sorts of problems in terms of lines and just voter dissatisfaction. The city council was unhappy, and just talking through these issues with a colleague of mine who was a logistics expert, you know, so it just really took that kind of micro type of, of analysis that took several years, if not a decade to finally – you know, I kind of kicked myself in retrospect, but I realized now I should have been in election offices much sooner.

Brianna Lennon: So, we were talking a little bit before we started about the direction of this conversation, and part of that is about the interactions between election officials and the academic community that has been working on making elections better. How have you – and we can get more into that, but I'm curious because what you just said reminded me – how have you personally seen, over that 20 years, your relationship with election officials change?

Charles Stewart III: Well, I've seen for me change and I've seen it for my colleagues change, and I think when academic – so, it wasn't like I was a total newbie to elections. I mean, I [was a] political scientist at the time, I was not an election scholar. I was and continue to be a congressional politics, legislative scholar. So, I studied elections because that's part of studying congressional politics, but that's at a very high level, and we study say, the effect of, of policy on things like turnout and the approach is really at like 30,000 feet. And we tend to partake of what I now call “how-hard-could-it-be-ism,” in which, you know, you just kind of flip a switch, you change a policy, you do this thing, and everything could be better or worse.

And I've learned a couple of things, and the most important thing I would say is that if you want to make a difference, if you want to improve voting in the United States, you have to see the process from the perspective of the people who are in the process, and that's both voters, yes, but on a day to day basis – it's election officials, and I think it's really important to take seriously what election officials are facing – to sometimes, as often as possible to be collaborators because that's both intellectually interesting, but it's also, I think, the way to make change. Both to help the lives of officials, but also they're the ones interacting with voters all the time, and if we want reforms – whether they be policy or technological policy, you know, we need to working with the people who are going to actually be making the change.

The final thing I'll say – and we can go down this line – is that I've learned you just can't preach to election officials, and I think that that's something that's hard for academics to learn – is that you just can't talk at them, like I'm doing now.

Brianna Lennon: Can you talk some about the projects that you've been working on now to try to bridge that divide so that people come to the table faster?

Charles Stewart III: Sure, I mean, a couple of things. The first thing I'll say is, you know, I'm the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab and one of our missions is to facilitate this interaction, which we often do it at kind of a high level, I mean, we almost – we have a list of other academics who've agreed to work with election officials on a one-to-one basis, and we, so we're kind of a hiring hall, if you will, and I speak a lot to election officials and those sorts of things.

But one of the things that we're doing right now is we're beginning a process of really strategic planning with a, with the stakeholders in the election administration space, and a big part of those stakeholders are election officials – state and local, but also academics, federal government folks, people in the private sector – to try to understand where academic research could help move election administration forward, and not only that, it's not even, but it's not just about making a list of things that, say election officials are interested in, so that the like, the academics can go off and do the research. It's more, what are these areas where we think:

Thing number one – that election officials really think are top of mind, and I have my nominees right now.

Thing number two – what are the things where you, the election official, and you, the academic, would like to work together to make these things better?

So, just to take an example of what I hope will happen, I mean, consider the area right now of mis and disinformation, or the or the lack of trust in a large part of the electorate. There's election officials doing a bunch of things, and this seems to be a high priority. My sense is that some people kind of know what they're doing, but a lot of people are kind of shooting in the dark. Political scientists and social psychologists and others know a lot about things around trust, around conspiracy thinking, public opinion formation, et cetera, and they're beginning to write about this and the election space. But they've not worked very much together to try to figure out, well, what works? What doesn't work?

So, my hope in this process – and we're going to, we're right now, we've commissioned a number of white papers for academics to kind of write about where's the state of research in a number of areas, especially in identifying best practices, but then where are areas where there's a lot of gaps and that it would be really useful to have these sorts of collaborations together – and hopefully, after this, you know, in the next several years, we can see money and other resources put together for projects. And not just in mis or disinformation, but you can kind of go – in every area of election administration, there's things that could be done. But right now, the question is, well, what needs to be done? What is that agenda? Where should investments be placed by private philanthropy, by government agencies, by others that might want to invest something in actually thinking through solving problems, rather than kind of making up solutions or relying on what I call religious faith – just things you kind of believe, and you think might work.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: So, how do you put that into a deliverable for election officials? And let me give an example of what I'm talking about. I know 8, 10 years ago, I know you worked a lot on a tool for election officials to plan resource allocation for polling locations to cut down on the wait times, like you said, from PCEA [Presidential Commission on Election Administration], and that was a tangible thing election officials could use to do something because we tend to be very micro people, we're down in the weeds, and we're trying to fix some problem that's right in front of us. So, this this issue of missing disinformation that you just talked about, I mean – we may not know yet at this point – but how does that become something election officials can use?

Charles Stewart III: Yeah, well, I mean, as you as you say, that's the, that to me is the question, as well. Kind of how, how can we work together? But, you know, I'm beginning to see research being done in collaboration, kind of these collaborations are beginning to form.

One example – a collaboration between some researchers at University of California San Diego and Election Officials in Texas. I'll get this wrong, but I believe it’s Texas, Colorado, California, Georgia in just messaging and doing kind of, you know, in some ways, kind of traditional studies of coming up with a whole lot of different messaging strategies, getting a sample of voters together, and just kind of, you know, experimenting with the different strategies and seeing which seemed to move the needle more on trusted information.

And the main takeaway is that really low production quality video or communications, explaining how elections work are highly effective. And so, I can imagine that a finding like that of going into a playbook of how to communicate – like rule number one, if you make a hostage video of the local county official, that's going to be the most effective way to communicate. Don't gussy it up. Don't have, you know, really cute animations and those things. Just talking to the camera, talking to voters, and obviously, well in a seemingly unscripted and kind of natural environment – works. Okay. So, kind of getting that playbook together, I think, would be a type of deliverable.

Brianna Lennon: Hopefully, you've seen attitudes from election offices wanting to work more because I remember 10 years ago, lots of people being very mistrustful and really just, “Well, academics is not the reason why we do this, we're not gonna give them data that they want because we don't have the time to do that.” Is it getting more collaborative working with election officials as well?

Charles Stewart III: I think it is, and I think you touch on something that I think is really important, in that I would say 10 years ago – and I can think of specific moments that made me want to just crawl into the floor – where I saw academics at kind of these confabs between, you know, academics and election officials, where academics would point their finger at the election official, and say, “Your job is to get me data so I can get tenure.” People were that bold, right? But if you want something from somebody, usually, right? You offer something in return, and I think that's the important thing about collaborations.

The other thing is something that the academics have to manage – is that young scholars do need to get tenure, but old guys like me don't, and so then you have, you have a choice that you can make in your career. You know, do you go back to that election official? “You need to give me that job so that, you know, you need to give me that data so I can get a raise next year?” Or do I take advantage of the fact that, you know, that I have tenure at a fancy place, or maybe not a fancy place, I can do whatever I want. So, can I use some of what, you know, the freedom that tenure gives me to go to an election official and just to say, you know, “This is something that I've noticed, I think it would make an interesting project. What do you think?” Or if I were somebody who studied public opinion, which is not my area of expertise, but somebody who is kind of a bit more senior who studies public opinion to call up their local or state office and say, “I understand this as a problem, can we work together to try to help you figure out what the best way of acting is? Best way of moving on this is?”

So it's a long way of saying – I've started noticing that more academics are understanding that it has to be a two-way street, and the thing that I'm trying to push, in this project I mentioned earlier, is to push that even further, to start with the demand side.

So, academics, our research usually – even when we want to be helpful – is really curiosity based. We see that bright, shiny object over there, maybe it's something nobody's ever looked at, and we want to study it because it's cool, it's interesting, it's neat, and it keeps us kind of fresh. Well, what I hope over the next couple of years, we can redirect a number of public-spirited academics to ask first, “Well, what have the election officials said, say they need?” Let's get together some time and start with the election officials talking and then us responding to that need. So, I'm seeing more of that. I think there needs to be even more. Incentivizing it with money will help, I think, and I'm hoping, I'm anticipating that we'll have opportunities for that to come into play, as well.

But at the same time, you know, I still see areas where it doesn't look like that mutuality has really been established. Not to call out individuals, but for instance, I think in the technology space, there's still a fair amount of antagonism that I continue to see. Folks in computer science and kind of related areas being a bit more hostile toward election officials and election officials putting up their shields, and so, you know, so that's an area where I think more work needs to be done, but I think at the operational level, we've gotten to the point where I can name, you know, a dozen or more academics who will go and quietly listen, and kind of start with the need as they propose their research.

Brianna Lennon: When you've been doing this work to, obviously, state legislators are a big part of the conversation of changing policies, because election officials can't do it on their own. How do you see the interplay between how policies actually reflect what election officials know that they need or want?

Charles Stewart III: That's a good question, and actually, I should turn it back to y'all because the two of you are living that life. One of the things I’ll reflect on, though, is I've now done over the last year, a lot of gigs where I've gone and talked to state legislators who are making policy. And at the beginning of the year, I was actually surprised by a couple of things:

One was actually how little policymakers knew about how elections were actually run – including people say, who were on the elections committees of state legislatures. For example, in one state that had just withdrawn from ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, somebody on the elections committee came up to me at one of these events, right after they had withdrawn, and said, “What's this ERIC thing I keep hearing about? You know, it's like the biggest policy, one of the biggest policy things going on right now, and people are complaining to me about it. I see the Secretary of State recently pulled out, what's it about?”

So, you know, a year later, they seem to be much more attuned, and it's not just because they are reaching out, but I think I'm also noticing that local officials and the state directors [where] possible – but I think it's really a local official sort of thing because they have more autonomy – are being more proactive in reaching out to their state legislators. The state associations where they exist are being more proactive, and I think that's a really important thing. Look, I mean – and it's not just about elections. Sometimes people will say, and there's a little bit of truth in this, that policymakers, especially elected policymakers, believe they're experts because, well, they were elected. And to some degree that's true, but now I'll put on my hat as a legislative studies scholar – that's true of every area of policy: state legislators, congressional legislators, county commissioners are generalists. They might know about one policy, maybe two, but they don't know about all of them, and so you, and maybe actually, election officials have kind of overestimated the degree to which policymakers have set opinions about things when they really don't. And they are not – I wouldn't say malleable – but they're, you can educate them because they are generalists, and they, you know, just a little bit of knowledge goes a long way, and other people are going to get to them, so why shouldn't county officials, other local officials begin to communicate much more aggressively, intensely with the policymakers? I think that's a really important thing to do.

Brianna Lennon: What is something for, you know, the average election official who's in a small jurisdiction or medium sized jurisdiction – really is doing way more than just elections, but may then hear from an academic who wants to talk to them about something – what do you want election officials to know about the work that you're doing?

Charles Stewart III: Well, the work I'm doing is trying to make elections more accessible, accurate and secure. To make it easier for Marge in whatever county, who’s doing a bunch of other things – easier for her to do her job.

And for the academic who comes to talk to her, I would ask that she be patient. I'd ask that she ask the academic to give me a call to provide some, provide some advice about how to talk to that academic, or rather to that election official, and see what, you know, kind of see if there's a way to meet in the middle rather than have a kind of a bad, bad experience. I don't know if that answers the question, but that's, that's what I got.

Brianna Lennon: Thank you for doing this.

Charles Stewart III: Well, it's been a lot of fun. I know I've been pestering you about this –

Brianna Lennon: No.

Charles Stewart III: – and you've been pestering me. So, we finally got to do it. This has been great. Thanks a lot.

Brianna Lennon: Yeah, thank you.

Eric Fey: Awesome.

You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon. A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.