Is it ok for researchers to mess with elections?

The events:

  • Three political scientists sent out official-looking election mailers to 100,000 Montana voters
  • The mailer described the ideological standing of technically non-partisan candidates for the Montana Supreme Court, putting one close to Obama and one close to Romney.
  • The mailer had the state seal among other logos, and the fine print said that the mailer sent by researchers from Dartmouth College and Stanford University, part of their research into voter participation

The academic controversy, from Talking Points Memo:

…political scientists consulted by TPM described the study as “malpractice” and “improper and unethical” because, by introducing the ideological position of non-partisan candidates, the flyers could — intentionally or not — influence the results of the elections.

“It’s basically political science malpractice. That’s what I’d call it,” Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., told TPM. “When you’re going to engage in an experiment as a political scientist, I think you have a responsibility not to affect election outcomes, let alone break the law.”

…”This strikes me as a lapse in judgment. If the election’s actually happening, they’re intervening in it,” Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, told TPM

Is this malpractice? It’s obviously questionable. But I haven’t jumped to an answer yet. In fact, the more I think it through, the more difficulty I have seeing a wrong, especially one the profession could or should ever rectify.

It sounds to me like Lawless and Skocpol are saying that you can’t do research and be an activist at the same time, even if it’s an activist for relatively benign things, such as “more information for voters”. I’m not so sure we can or should regulate this as a profession.

Let’s use a different example. I run field experiments trying to reduce poverty and violence. Sometimes I design experiments and interventions myself. Seldom do people say to me, “You are mucking around with real world outcomes. Who gave you the permission to do that?”

Maybe people should ask. It’s a good question. Thinking it through, I get a more nuanced answer than malpractice.

When you’re working in your own country (say the US for example) the law generally protects your right to help other people, or give information in elections. This is true even if you want to give very, very large sums of money for partisan causes (like Buffett or the Koch brothers do).

If these researchers were mucking around in another country’s elections, the law of the land would say whether or not the level of informed consent was a problem. In the case of Montana, it sounds like the researchers disclosed their purpose and identity, which is more than I can say for most electioneering in this country. With the exception of the State Seal question (I don’t know if this is legal or not) it sounds to a non-expert like me that they were within the law.

I don’t think it matters for what Skocpol and Lawless said. The political scientists calling this unethical don’t seem to be quibbling about the use of the seal or adequacy of disclosure. It’s the fact that an experiment could affect outcomes that they seem to question.

Let’s go back to my poverty and violence work for a minute. When I work in other countries, I generally have the consent of both the government and the participants. I also work with organizations doing this sort of intervention anyways (though not always).

I’m willing to bet that, had the researchers worked with a non-partisan institute that was mucking around in elections already, there would be no blowback to the researchers at all. They would simply be evaluating a real world intervention. Even if it was clear they had worked with the institute to tweak or even design the mailers, for most this would never be an issue.

My hunch is that it’s the fact that the academics are the interveners that makes “other political scientists” question the appropriateness.

You can also argue the finer points of informed consent in a democracy, but for me I think it really comes down to this question of whether academics can also be activists at the same time. Naturally I can come up with reasons why they shouldn’t, but I don’t find any particularly compelling. Most of us have political agendas, and we write books and articles pushing those agendas. It’s not obvious to me that as an academic in a democracy I am not allowed to use my work to achieve certain political ends.

I think it would be fair for universities to set out guidelines of appropriate behavior beyond what is required by law. And maybe disciplines and journals too. Personally I would prefer a university and discipline that restricted its members as little as possible.

I’m sure there are sides I’m not thinking of. I’d love to hear why people think intervening in an election is off limits for academic research (especially when it’s done by citizens in their own country). I promise to post again if you change my mind.