More on GlacierGate: If non-partisan judicial elections are not a democratic good, can we conduct research intended to actively undermine them?

Thomas Leeper, in a recent blog posting, makes what strikes me as a very problematic claim to try to justify the Montana field experiment.

Leeper asserts that non-partisan elections “do not obtain the democratic benefits that their advocates hope for,” and that “judicial elections are not necessarily a democratic good.”

I defer to Prof. Leeper for the justifications of these claims; I have no reason to doubt his summary of the literature.  I find his arguments intuitively and theoretically appealing.

But how can this possibly justify the Montana field experiment?  Leeper is arguing that scientific research that in the process of conducting the research actively undermines a democratic election practice cannot be criticized if the process itself is of questionable democratic value.

Please note, I am not saying that political scientists should not subject election procedures to the closest possible empirical and normative scrutiny.  But Leeper misses the point, made by myself in an earlier post and by Melissa Michelson on the New West Blog, that this experiment did not just study the impact of providing partisan cueing information on voter turnout in a non-partisan election, by its very scope, could have undermined the practice itself.

There are 671,031 registered voters in Montana, so this mailer was sent to 15% of the electorate.  Depending on how many of the recipients had already intended to vote, using the 2010 turnout as a baseline, as much as half the total voting population received this mailer!

Choose your guide to research ethics in the social sciences.  Here is one from Notre Dame, and second from Iowa State.  I didn’t choose these with any particular intent in mind; they were just two of the first that came up after a Google search of “ethical guidelines for social science research.

Others may disagree, but I fail to see how this study attempted to, at a minimum:

  • Consider and anticipate effects on third parties that are not directly included in the research (judicial candidates, supporters of non-partisan elections in Montana)
  • Show respect for the values and views of research subjects, even if they differ  from those generally accepted by society at large (if we accept Leeper’s argument that non-partisan elections are a net bad, and so if the experiment undermined the Montana election it’s OK since those who believe this are simply wrong)

The example used in research ethics 101 is this: we cannot be absolutely sure that someone does not have HIV (today the example used would be Ebola) unless we tested all of their blood. The problem with this test: it would kill the individual.  We should minimize to the degree possible the impact of our measurement on the thing we are measuring, and this research design fails this test.

Finally, I’m really amazed that this research is justified on the grounds that private entities are doing this anyway.  John Patty writes:

I will point out quickly that this type of experimental work is done all the time by corporations.  This is often called “market research” or “market testing.”  People don’t like to think they are being treated like guinea pigs, but trust me…you are.  And you always will be.

Corporations are not subject to an IRB. I we hold ourselves to a higher standard than simply what makes money for Anheuser Busch.