Non-Citizen Voting and Why Political Scientists who are Publicly Engaged May Need an Editor

There has been a lot of ink spilled over a recent article in the Monkey Cage that suggested that “Non Citizens Could Decide the The November Election.”  At last count, the post had generated 3305 comments, the most by far in the history of the Monkey Cage.

The blog posting was based on a forthcoming article in Electoral Studies, which had a less provocative title (“Do Non Citizens Vote in US Elections“) but does contain this highly charged claim:

These results allow us to estimate the impact of non-citizen voting on election outcomes. We find that there is reason to believe non-citizen voting changed one state’s Electoral College votes in 2008, delivering North Carolina to Obama, and that non-citizen votes have also led to Democratic victories in congressional races including a critical 2008 Senate race that delivered for Democrats a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

The conservative websites, such as the National Review and the Drudge Report, that publicized the findings, seem to have missed the final statement in the article:

For those who wish to further restrict participation by non-citizens, however, our results also provide important cautions. Simple resort to voter photo-identification rules is unlikely to be particularly effective.

My interest here is less in the possible problems with the study; John Ahlquist and Scott Gelbach and Michael Tesler, in separate Monkey Cage postings, have done a nice job summarizing these.

And to the credit of Jesse Richman, the lead author of the study, he has not shrank from the public gaze and has engaged with his critics at Rick Hasen’s Election Law blog in particular.

But I have to add that this quote, in a recent “Fact Checker” article in the Reno Gazette-Journal, is just brutal.

UPDATE: After this story posted, Richman replied via email:

“We agree with your rating of a ‘4’ because:

“A. Noncitizen voting might tip one or two extremely close races but is unlikely to tip the balance in the Senate, and certainly not in the House.

“B. Science is a process of finding, validation, replication and rebuttal. We are at the very beginning of the process. Colleagues have raised reasonable questions about the data we used–problems that we acknowledge in both the study and the Monkey Cage. It will take some time and additional research to increase confidence in our findings.”

Horse.  Stable Door.  Too Late.

The damage form this study may have already been done.  Doug Chapin, someone who bridges political science and policy, has already written (“Is Political Science Blowing It’s Close Up?”) about the impact of this study (and the Montana experiment) on when and how election administrators may engage with scholars.  I am attending a conference of election officials in just a few weeks, and I am certain I will have to defend our discipline from those who are already skeptical about working with scholars.

Any political scientist, and particularly those who work in the elections administration and election policy fields, need to be worried to see a quote like this from one of our supporters and friends:

But if political scientists aren’t careful – either in monitoring their own or their colleagues’ research and publishing decisions – the interest in political science-driven stories will wane. Or worse, it could become yet another (albeit more numerate) weapon in the ongoing rhetorical wars between the parties.

It will also make it harder for researchers and election officials to “play nice” with one another on projects of mutual interest – which for me would be the unkindest cut of all.

My professional association is working hard to convince politicians and policy makers that our scholarship can be relevant.  But we as members need to be very circumspect about how we publicize our work, particularly in the context of a dynamic and competitive election campaign.  This is not about a few citations or a few appearances on local news shows.  This is about political power, and those in power can be quite unforgiving.