While many Americans are still digesting the ramifications of our most recent election, Charles Stewart III, professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is already looking towards 2020. Stewart is the founding Director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab: an initiative that strives to bring together data from American elections into one place so that researchers, academics, the press and policymakers can use the information as a resource to inform improvements of elections. It’s a non-partisan gathering ground for that beautifully objective jewel of a thing—raw data—to be stored, aggregated and then transformed into meaningful, accessible content. It’s a “one-stop shop,” as Stewart said, of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but that.
The lab was established in January of 2017, directly in the wake of one of the most contentious elections in American history. Its roots, however, go back at least 17 years, starting with the infamous Florida recount of 2000. That election gave rise to the CalTech Voting Technology Project, which aims “to prevent a recurrence of the problems that threatened the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election.” The CalTech VTP, coupled with the 16 years Stewart spent working with academics and election officials in order to better understand and improve elections, are the inspiration and backbone of this lab, although it still stands on its own as the first of its kind.
In other words, the seed for the lab was planted well before Russian hacks, alleged voter fraud and Trump’s victory. But timeline notwithstanding, Stewart sees the lab as important now as ever. Elections, he said, are increasingly being cast in a rising partisan framework, which makes “the larger election science community interested in having a more science and data based approach to making elections more convenient, more secure and increasing turnout.” The lab is a perfect opportunity for academics and practitioners to explore common ground: to “bridge the two worlds” between academics and practitioners to create a larger resource for academics and resources.