News: CJ Exclusives

Study comparing N.C. elections to North Korea’s called ‘bad science’

Electoral Integrity Project report, developed in part by UNC-CH professor, plagued by subjectivity, experts say

Experts are using terms such as “absurd,” and “silly” to describe a study, and an opinion column written by one of its founders, that purports North Carolina no longer is a functioning democracy, and that North Korea and Cuba rank higher for electoral integrity than the Tar Heel State.

The issue gained national attention after UNC-Chapel Hill professor Andrew Reynolds made those claims in a Dec. 22 op-ed column in the Raleigh News & Observer based on an international survey by The Electoral Integrity Project jointly operated by Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia. Reynolds helped to devise the study methodology.

“I just think it’s sort of crappy data,” Andrew Gelman told Carolina Journal. Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science, and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. He is also a researcher who has studied electoral practices.

“This was not a trustworthy measure of anything. This is just sort of bad science,” said Gelman, whose professional blog, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, drew similar reactions to the study from a variety of academic experts.

“I think the comparisons are absurd, and I think the definitions are slippery as well,” Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, told CJ. He lamented that this is an example of how suspect research, and the way it’s presented to the public, are passed off as serious scholarly work.

“It doesn’t really matter what you’re saying. It’s the tone that’s important. It was shrill, and it fit the narrative of one part of the polarized divide, and so bang, it got picked up,” Taylor said. “It confirmed what many people in the media seem to believe, and got into the bloodstream.”

Taylor said in research and political circles there is an “escalating of the dramatic in order to be seen and heard in a very, very noisy public sphere these days. One often errs on the side of the dramatic rather than the modest to get your point across and so to be heard.”

Reynolds’ column contained several eye-opening contentions.

“North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela,” he wrote. According to study measures, North Carolina performed so poorly “that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy.”

Reynolds wrote that North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58 of a possible 100 points for the 2016 election “places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.”

The professor added that North Carolina received a grade of only 7 out of a possible 100 on electoral district boundaries, making it “not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting, but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.”

The 2016 report ranked the United States the lowest of any established democracy in its election quality. In an interview with GQ magazine, Reynolds, by inference, blamed that partly on the Electoral College.

“I think there are significant issues when a presidential candidate wins 3 million more votes and still loses, just as there were with a presidential candidate losing with half a million more votes 16 years ago,” he said. “If you had that in Nigeria or Kenya, there would be civil war overnight.”

Alongside academic partners, the Electoral Integrity Project lists progressive funders, including the Open Society Foundation, created by billionaire political activist George Soros; the Sunlight Foundation, a group that purports to back political transparency but has attacked the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as “open[ing] the door to the unfettered, unregulated influx of money into elections;” and the Hewlett Foundation, which provides grants to left-leaning environmental and activist groups.

The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity report is based on a set of 49 criteria distributed in a survey, sent to as many as 40 people deemed experts in each governmental unit the project covers. The experts are not identified.

“They used a certain method, and then it gives an unbelievable answer for North Korea. It makes me doubt their estimates for other countries too,” Gelman said.

Gelman’s biggest concern about the dataset is its reliance on subjective responses from the participants. Depending on the respondent’s political biases and preferences, very different answers could be given, he said. And because each state and country has different respondents, there is no consistency or standard of responses for comparative purposes.

Gelman was alerted to the study by a political scientist who received the questionnaire, but said he did not have the expertise to answer some of the questions.

“There might be some value to it. I’m not saying it’s completely useless,” Gelman said of subjective polling, but the study lacked other controls to properly adjust the findings.

Pippa Norris, a lecturer in the Harvard School of Government who directs the Electoral Integrity Project, debated with other experts on Gelman’s blog about why the new model of social science research to determine electoral integrity deserves respect even as it continues to develop.

“I didn’t find the defenses very convincing,” Gelman said.

“Across-state, and across-time comparisons are much more fruitful and interesting than those international kinds of comparisons” used in the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity study because other nations have different electoral concepts and institutions, and “clearly do not approach the kind of democratic principles we have in North Carolina,” Taylor said.

He said Reynolds’ contention that legislative gerrymandering reduces North Carolina’s electoral intregity has some validity, but his calling a special legislative session that redefines a governor’s authority a power grab is off-base.

“That’s a question of what we often call in the United States republican principles, this notion of preventing a concentration of power, of checking and balancing power,” Taylor said.

Reynolds seems to promote a notion of democracy as strictly majoritarian, Taylor said, and majority views are important in America.

“But we don’t believe the majority should get what it wants sort of carte blanche without any limits. We believe that individuals have rights,” Taylor said, “and those rights should be protected, and majorities no matter how large and how passionate cannot take them away.