The State of the Science

Published Feb 6, 2024

Dr. Mindy Romero, founder of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, talks with Jess about current election science and what we can expect to see during the 2024 election cycle.


Not so long ago in a country not at all far away, it became politically expedient to deny science. Politicians and pundits rejected generations of research about human impacts on the planet, grandstanding for 24-hour infotainment networks that distorted the role of politics from the necessary lubricant of modern democracy to blood sport.

Senators holding snowballs inside Congress to deny human-caused climate change led to a president who denied the severity of a worldwide viral illness, and somewhere between those events the fragile ceremony- and etiquette-based two-party political system of the United States became a brutal winner-take-all partisan cage match.

And where was science during this weaponization of the political arena? After Robert Oppenheimer, driving force behind the realization of the atomic bomb, was spectacularly censured and had his security clearance stripped by the United States government in 1954, most scientists had largely steered clear of public political stances and activities.

In the face of widespread science denialism that metastasized in the fertile landscape of constant internet connectivity, many scientists shifted their publicly apolitical stances and spoke out, marched, and even ran for office. I know, because I’m one of them. I ran for Congress against a climate science denying incumbent in my district, and I was witness to one of the greatest mobilizations of scientists in history. But scientists aren’t engaged solely in promoting evidence-based policy-making (although that was the central component of my candidacy).

The science of elections is a central focus of the Union of Concerned Scientists and researchers around the world. For the 2024 election cycle, UCS is concerned (pun intended) with countering gerrymandering at the state level, the science underpinning equitable ballot design, analyzing election data to inoculate the public against disinformation and support effective voter turnout, and using our Science Rising campaign to mobilize students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields to vote.

During the lead up to this November’s general election, I’m creating a series of episodes that feature scientists, advocates, and organizers in the election space. While science denialism isn’t going anywhere, we do have the power to counter all types of disinformation with facts, data, and relationships with voters. Understanding the situation on the ground is where science shines, and election science is no exception. This isn’t a partisan fight. It’s our duty as scientists to discover, analyze, and communicate the facts to the public. Only then can individuals make informed choices.

Welcome to democracy in the United States of America, 2024.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science.

Jess: I'm coming to you today from the University of Southern California, home of the Center for Inclusive Democracy. Joining me is the center's founder and director, Dr. Mindy Romero. Mindy is a sociologist whose research examines race and ethnicity in the context of political behavior, and she's working to understand and explain voting patterns and political under-representation. Mindy is on the front lines of analyzing and interpreting election science. So, thank you so much for being here, and if you could start by giving us a general overview of what the science of elections is all about? Dr. Romero: I would say that the science of elections really is, really, the exploration, the better understanding of how our elections, how the election system in the United States actually functions, really anything from certainly turnout, like we probably often think of when we think about elections, to different methods of voting, what the voter experience is, all the way to, really, kind of the back, behind the scenes and things, when it comes to how the election is administered, right, by election officials. So, the process for how you set up a polling place, or a vote center, understanding the science behind the flow and the efficiency, and how to get people out and in, and, you know, auditing of the election results, right? In recent years, threats to election officials, how that impacts them, how it impacts their work, the public perception of election officials themselves, but also whether people trust elections. How can we increase trust? How does that impact things like accepting the results of an election?

Dr. Romero: I would say that the science of elections really is, really, the exploration, the better understanding of how our elections, how the election system in the United States actually functions, really anything from certainly turnout, like we probably often think of when we think about elections, to different methods of voting, what the voter experience is, all the way to, really, kind of the back, behind the scenes and things, when it comes to how the election is administered, right, by election officials. So, the process for how you set up a polling place, or a vote center, understanding the science behind the flow and the efficiency, and how to get people out and in, and, you know, auditing of the election results, right? In recent years, threats to election officials, how that impacts them, how it impacts their work, the public perception of election officials themselves, but also whether people trust elections. How can we increase trust? How does that impact things like accepting the results of an election?

Jess: It's pretty broad. And it's incredibly important, and I would say, increasingly important, in light of everything that's happened the last few years. But I'm an '80s kid. But I can remember hearing general, like, get-out-the-vote campaigns, all the messaging, since I was in elementary school. I remember when Rock the Vote came out in the '90s, and then I've seen their booths at concerts I've gone to, you know, in the '90s and into this decade. So, why do we need all of this? Like, why does the United States have such a hard time getting people to the polls?

Dr. Romero: Well, I think just understanding that, which most people don't, right? And seeing that as a negative. So, we're a democracy, for all intents and purposes, but we're not a representative democracy. We've done a number of things over the last hundred years or so, right, to try to get us closer to that, but we're nowhere near that. You know, I think if you talk to a lot of people, they like the fact that we have a democracy. People like the idea of it. But when it really comes to kind of push, you know, push comes to shove, if you will, not everybody believes the basic assumption that it should be a representative democracy.

But to really address your question, not everybody's voting, first off. We have to reach those people that aren't voting. We know there are lots of barriers, historically, and still today, for why people don't participate. It's not like people are just, you know, checking out, and don't wanna... You know, there's always some people that are apathetic, but by and large, I've seen in my own research, and we know this in the field, that most people who are not participating, there's real reasons why they're not participating. There's barriers, kind of, institutionally, that make it harder for them to participate, but there's also motivational barriers. People feel less connected, or they feel disconnected from the political process. They care very much about their communities. They care very much about, at least in the concept of election officials and what they're gonna do for their communities and their lives, but they don't see how making a vote, right, actually casting a vote, will get them there. And there's a lot of skepticism around our political electoral process, around our elected officials, and we also have an electoral system that, aside from the rules and regulations that we know that are present, right, that make it harder for people, we have an electoral system that doesn't engage, typically, with historically underrepresented groups.

So we get, really, this kind of vicious cycle, where people don't get the outreach and engagement from campaigns and candidates, so then they don't turn out. Most campaigns and candidates, they're doing the vast majority of outreach and voter education in our system. It's not election officials. It's not nonprofits, although they do great work. It's, the bulk of the money, time, and attention is from candidates and campaigns. They're not trying to get everybody out to vote. They're only trying to get those that they need, and probably just what they need, and so they're using, typically, always exceptions, a likely voter model. And that likely voter model means that they are targeting those people already highest, most likely to vote. By definition, they're gonna be less likely to target historically underrepresented groups. And you can have people that are even registered to vote. We have lots of survey research that shows us that election after election, that groups that are less likely to vote are less likely to get that outreach and mobilization, and therefore, less information, less urgency to participate, and the vicious cycle continues. So, why do we need Rock the Vote? Because we need alternatives to that, right? We need all that we can get, when it comes to nonpartisan activities, to reach out, to make the case for voting, to start to change some of those numbers. We've seen a lot of good work over the last few decades. Unfortunately, we still have tremendous disparities in turnout, and we have a electorate that is still very underrepresented, so we need much more.

Jess: There's a real urgency there, and it's a brutal efficiency. It's, "Who is going to come out and vote for us? We're gonna invest in them." I mean, that's what campaigns do. You've nailed it. I wanted to talk a little bit about a more recent effort which got a lot of publicity. So, in 2018, Stacey Abrams, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, and she had run for higher office in Georgia, for governor, she actually, because of worries about voter suppression, she started Fair Fight Action, and that was designed to combat voter suppression. Is active voter suppression, is that a big issue that we see today?

Dr. Romero: So, what are the election policies in a given jurisdiction, typically at the state level, that make it harder or easier, and are those policies designed in a way that disproportionately and negatively impact some populations more than others, right? Is it just something that makes it harder for, like, registration, makes it harder for everybody to register? Or does it target disproportionately some groups more than others? And in Georgia, right, lots of conversation around changes in election policy, designed, right, to make it harder for Black communities to vote.

So, there's kind of what's in the law, and then there's maybe more subtle forms of voter suppression. But we have, I would argue, culturally, we have many aspects of who we are as a nation that, in a broader definition is a form of voter suppression. And then we have kind of everything in between, between the, kind of, what's in the law specifically, and kind of the cultural ethos. We have, how does our electoral system, in the way that it's designed, serve to suppress the vote, okay?

Jess: Just flaws inherent in the system.

Dr. Romero: Well, we have a two-party, winner-take-all system, right, single-member districts. One of the biggest predictors of turnout, period, almost across election types, is whether it's competitive. 2020, we saw historically high turnout, a record turnout in 2020. Why? Because it was an incredibly competitive presidential year, right? The way our system here in the United States is designed, it really is, most districts across the United States, at least congressionally, let's just take congressional districts, you've got the power of incumbency, you have safe districts, and you don't have people feeling like there's a lot at stake for why they should participate unless you're a really die-hard voter, and, campaigns and candidates probably aren't gonna spend a lot of money. You may not even have an opponent if you're an incumbent. If you have an incumbent, maybe it's a cakewalk, and you're not gonna put a lot of money into that outreach, and some people don't even hear that there is an election, right? That's just one example.

Dr. Romero: And so, what that does is that disproportionately, it's the die-hard voters and demographically skewed in one way, right, and policy-skewed as well, and, kind of, everybody else that doesn't get to participate. And then some of those voters will come out in the primary, but they're voting on a ballot that has been selected by a very unrepresentative, right, small group of the population. We have a culture in the United States where it's completely acceptable not to vote. It really is.

Jess: And it's shocking, because not every country is like that. I lived in Australia for a few years, and it's mandatory. Everybody votes.

Dr. Romero: Yeah. Election night is a block night, block party night, I should say, right? Hey. People celebrate that. It's fun. So, yeah. In the United States, there really isn't pressure. I think things are starting to change in the last couple election cycles, for some folks. We're seeing more signs and events. Celebrities come out. A lot of that, though, is politically skewed in one direction or another, and engagement is engagement. But we'd love to see more nonpartisan. Just come out to vote because it's important to vote. So, our youth vote is smaller than older voters. We have, you know, smaller turnout rates for young voters compared to 65-plus, for instance. But if you look at the youth vote, those who are participating, it is skewed more, you're more likely if you're college-going, wealthier background, you know, all that kind of stuff, right? So, youth of color, low-income youth are even less represented. So, culturally, especially for young people, young people are not expected to participate. Sometimes they're actively discouraged. And then, just generally speaking, we're a very ageist society. It's one of the last, kind of, open areas of discrimination.

We, openly, on news media, really, all aspects of our culture, you can disparage young people. We don't do a lot to support young people in voting. When they do, we question it. And when they don't, we blame them for it. Or we say, you know, "What's wrong with these young people?" So, it's really obvious when we look at age. It's less obvious when we look at other categories. But I would say, certainly, we have a culture that, in many states, for instance, you have to, you know, you have to take it off from work to vote. You lose income. In recent times, the political pressure around how you're gonna vote if you are gonna vote.

So, anyway, that gives you kind of a really broad spectrum of how to think about it. But do we have, still, very overt, maybe more traditionally-defined types of voter suppression that happen in the United States, where people go to the polling place and they feel intimidated? Yeah, those things, of course, still happen as well. But just as with many things in our history, right, and our culture, anytime that you don't have to pull out that very obvious violent card, and you suppress by having people self-select out of participating...

Jess: Yeah. That's insidious.

Dr. Romero: It's insidious. And what you do is you end up creating an electorate that seems to self-select. And instead of us questioning why the system, right, discourages people.

Jess: It's like it ticks our confirmation bias, and then we just go about our business. Dr. Romero: Yes. I mean, yeah, we do nothing to prepare young people to participate in our elections. But then they turn 18, they don't vote. We magically expected them both to know how to vote, want to vote, and when they don't, we blame them. It’s really present everywhere, in some form, to blame the group that is suppressed. So we don't question our larger system.

Jess: Yeah. We are just allowing the cycle to continue. And I love that you framed it as ageism, because that is's poignant. It's true. You can kick the next generation below you all you want. I mean, that's how it works, and that's not right. Because you have this lengthy experience around voting, and what patterns look like, I wanted to ask if you've seen a shift in priorities for voters. And, for example, have you seen environmental concerns as an issue that's driving people to the polls in a way that it hasn't? Or are there any other major issue shifts that we should be aware of?

Dr. Romero: Yeah. First off, I'll say that, any given poll, generally speaking, the top five top issues that people are concerned about, especially tying to an election, are gonna be the same. Typically, they're the same. Maybe the numbers adjust a little bit but, you know, it's the economy, it's jobs, it's crime, right? Those sorts of things. Health. And across groups. Like, I get asked a lot about, you know, what Black voters or Latino voters, young voters are looking at. Across groups, people have more in common than they don't have in common. So, typically, the top interests, right, are gonna be at least somewhat similar. And I say that only because so often, I will see it used as an excuse. "Well, Latinos or young people care," or whatever the group is, "they care about this over here.” But really, there's a ton of overlap, right?

For young people, we've seen shifts. Certainly recently, young people will be more likely than older groups to cite environmental issues, social justice issues. Abortion, obviously, in the last few years, has come up, cited more and more by groups. Depending how the question is worded, you'll see that kind of pop into a reason that can drive somebody's vote. So, but I just wanted to emphasize that there's just...while there are shifts, there's more common ground.

Jess: I wanted to highlight how, in the last few election cycles, we've seen a lot of Republican leadership, everywhere from local to national level, undermining public trust in vote-by-mail and early voting. And I just heard, I think it was yesterday, a segment on NPR about how now Republican leadership is trying to completely do a 180, and say, "We have to play," and I'm quoting, actually, from this piece, "We have to play the game of the Democrats. And so you need to go out and vote by mail, and vote early." How do you think that partisan polarization around early voting and mail-in voting might play out in this election cycle?

Dr. Romero: Well, and I know you know this, of course. Republicans used to promote vote by mail all the time. Somebody saying "We need to now play the game" really sounds like, to me, a way of justifying getting back to it. You know, because of the inconsistencies and because of the push from Donald Trump and others, right, to discourage people in 2020 from voting by mail. Like, how do you get people back? Because Republicans know, strategists know, that they, this is a detriment, right? How to get people back to it? And this is obviously a nonpartisan conversation, but the truth is that we know, across the country, that the negative conversation, and kind of fueling kind of distrust of vote by mail, did come from the Republican side, and largely pushed by the president of the United States at the time, Donald Trump in 2020.

I will say that I think that we will get back to, well, I don't know if we'll ever get to the 2020 numbers that we saw, because obviously, that was fueled by a pandemic. Vote-by-mail use, I should say, right, in 2020. But prior to 2020, so, we saw a number of states going universal vote-by-mail. California now, everybody automatically gets mailed a vote-by-mail ballot, although they do have options to still vote in person, and get their ballot in in different ways, not necessarily through the mail. One of the big questions is what's it gonna look like in two election cycles, three election cycles, four election cycles? Will we see an overall trajectory, upward trajectory, of vote-by-mail, or has this been kind of truncated, right? 2022, vote-by-mail use went way down. We expected that. The question was just how much. Will we see kind of an increasing use over time, or has what happened in 2020, and to some degree, you know, obviously continuing, has that kind of impacted the long term trajectory? I think it has.

We've done a lot of research around vote-by-mail. One paper that was not a CID report, but was a paper, academic paper, with my colleague, Eric McGhee, of the Public Policy Institute, was really right out the gates post-2020. We were looking at this question around turnout. And if it, just, trying to answer one question in this bigger set of questions around the possible negative, or disproportionately negative or positive impacts of vote-by-mail, right, politically. And in that paper, we found that vote-by-mail...the universal type of vote-by-mail did positively impact turnout by a few percentage points. But did it have a party advantage? And we did not find a party advantage.

It should be about opening up access, right, to voters, period, regardless of party affiliation, making it easier for people, in a pandemic, in a non-pandemic year. So, we'll see how things go. There's still a question mark, which is, people's behavior versus what campaigns do.

Jess: I do wanna bring it around to, because Union of Concerned Scientists, we do deal with a lot of things, like climate change and green technology. But, having science and democracy working together is really fundamental to what we do. So, I wanted to ask you, as someone who is a political sociologist, and actively doing research, and teaching in this field, what role do you think science has in ensuring that we have fair and equitable representation?

Dr. Romero: Of course it has a huge role, right? I'm gonna say that, but it’s true. You know, in educating policymakers alone, right? But educating the public. Better understanding why we have things like turnout disparities. So, that way, we can, hopefully, in the long haul, address them, and see a more representative democracy, numerically representative democracy, at least. Every field, and elections are no different, our democracy space is no different, we need to have facts. We need to have research. We need to have those that have the ability to be able to ask the research questions that are most relevant. It’s really, really critical, especially in the elections policy, democracy space, more broadly. And we need to have people that can communicate that research out, to policymakers, to talk about the impact of vote-by-mail, and other types of election policies, like automatic voter registration, pre-registration of young people, vote centers. What does it matter from an election administration perspective? What does it matter from a voter experience perspective? What does it matter, in the long run, from the strength of our democracy, in terms of robustness and inclusivity?

It's critically important, and we need more people in this field. And we certainly also need even greater ability to be able to communicate. Now, a lot more people are paying attention to election science research. But there's also the potential for crying foul, in terms of partisanism, or inappropriate research design, or whatever it might be. And that's the thing that's difficult. Researchers need to ask hard questions. We need to be able to communicate that work as matter-of-fact, as a given. And so many researchers, I think, sometimes get a little scared off, even, in this space. There's many that have been entering into this space as well, because they see the importance of it, but I think it also is something that can be intimidating, because of the charged nature of just all of these conversations.

Jess: So, well, so, okay. For how we kind of like to tie things up here at "This is Science," is we are the Union of Concerned Scientists. And my final question to all of my guests is the same. And so it is for you: Mindy, why are you concerned? Dr. Romero: I am concerned about a lot of things, but, it is 2024, and we just flipped the calendar, right, and we're just started in earnest the primary caucus, primary season. It's gonna be a bumpy ride. And for all the reasons why I think probably most of your listeners are already thinking, right? Misinformation, disinformation. Political rhetoric. Trust. Threats of election officials. The list goes on and on.

I'm particularly concerned about AI. I fear that it will actually be probably the story of 2024, other than who gets elected. And its role in the public's belief and trust in the outcome of the election. And of course, right here, I'm focusing on the presidential election, but we could be talking about local as well, state or local. You know, if we have a close election either way, I think we're gonna be facing some real challenges in terms of the strength of our democratic institutions. I'm not the only one to say that, obviously, but I'm deeply concerned.

I'll add something to it, though. What we don't talk enough about. So much of the conversation, over the last few years, and now going into 2024, good people, academics, policymakers, others, right, leading thinkers in the democracy space, come together to talk about things like cybersecurity, like misinformation and disinformation, trust in elections, and so forth. All really important critical conversations. What do we do? How do we stave it off, right? How do we save our democracy? But so many of those conversations don't talk about what we've talked about, you and I, most of this conversation, which is the equity component, right? An inclusive, equitable election system, an inclusive democracy. And I think we don't talk enough about just the disparate impacts, or differential impacts on different communities when we talk about trust, when we talk about misinformation. We're not, you know, as we do in so many other types of topics, we're just not considering those types of things.

But, particularly here what I'm concerned about is, for a very long time, we've had a lot of good people, a lot of leaders in our country, a lot of civil rights groups, voting rights groups, that have really pushed us to get to be a more representative democracy, right? To fulfill the promise of our democracy. And a lot of that conversation is pushing back on the fact, you know, calling out the ills and the deficiencies in our democracy, and the fact that we're not there, right, and so forth. And now, in the last couple of election cycles, there's so much conversation around trying to save our democracy, and save our institutions, that it's, a lot of that's, in some way, shape, or form, kind of reassuring people. "No. Everything's okay. There's not any fraud," right, and everything... And 2020 election was incredibly well-run. And, you know no election was stolen, right? I'm talking at the presidential level, there was not...the Big Lie is a big lie, and we all know that and everything, our legal system has shown us that, for sure, if you doubted it. But, there's been so much conversation around kind of shoring that up, so the people that are conspiracy theorists, that do wanna attack that, we're trying not to give them anything, right, anything to run with.

But what that means, then, is that for everybody who's been fighting that good fight for so long, right, to question our institutions, to make them better, to push them, right, again, for that promise, you lose...they've lost a lot of allies in that conversation. I fear, coming out of 2024, that folks that are on one path, to improve our democracy, they don't wanna see us "save it," or go back to what it was prior to 2016. They wanna see it continue to evolve to a stronger, right, better democracy. And what will it look like post-2024? What does it look like now, in those different conversations? And will we potentially find ourselves, coming out of this, we hope coming out of this, in some way, with less ability, less capacity for coalition work to continue to push for a better democracy? Well, you know, will that just be harder, when people kind of look to see where people lined up, where it shouldn't be about lining up, right? But where some folks are focused on this and some folks are focused on that, and some folks are focused on this, and, at times, some groups may be feeling that their voices are not being heard, or being...or funding is going in places where it's not going to them, right, and their fight that they've been fighting. So, I've asked me what I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about what everybody's concerned about, and I'm also thinking about things like that, and what that means for the continued improvement of our democracy. You think about just how the conversations have changed, right? The honest conversations about where we're at have just become more difficult, I think, in many, many places, and in many circumstances.

If you’d like to go deeper, visit the UCS YouTube channel for my complete conversation with Mindy. It’s worth the watch. Over the next few months we’ll cover election disinformation and journalism’s role in the political realm, the non-partisan relational voter turnout work of the Greater Cleveland Commission, the integral relationship between science and democracy, and in-house work here at UCS to use scientific expertise to support community advocacy efforts.

Thanks to the UCS Center for Science and Democracy team, and Omari Spears for production help on this episode, and to Anthony Eyring for our multimedia magic. Onward, Science Pals!

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