Understanding Voting Through Experimentation

Rebecca Morton, a professor of Politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, is at the forefront of the development and growing recognition of using experiments to understand voting.

By definition, scientists do experiments. Increasingly, that truism now applies to political scientists, just as it does to chemists or biologists. Rebecca Morton, a professor of Politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, is at the forefront of the development and growing recognition of this new aspect of an old discipline.

"In the last 15 years or so, many political scientists have become less and less happy with the usual observational data. It's too messy," said Morton, a "bridge" faculty member whose appointment is half in Abu Dhabi and half in New York.

"The gold standard in science is experiments, but we used to tell ourselves that we can't do them in political science," she continued. "But now we're saying 'maybe we can.'" Both field and laboratory experiments — practical and theoretical, in other words — are proliferating.

This approach is not altogether new; as far back as 1924, University of Chicago scholar Harold Gosnell was assessing the effect of get-out-the-vote mailings. But such research languished until the 1970s and '80s, when "the increase in cheap and easily programmable computer networking technology" jump-started the field, Morton suggested in a 2006 paper with Kenneth C. Williams of Michigan State University.

Since about 2000, growth has accelerated: in 2010 the American Political Science Association added an experimental research section, underlining the field's growing maturity and acceptance within the discipline. The new section has its own fledgling journal, of which Morton is a co-editor. As president-elect of the section, she will take office when her editorship ends.

At NYUAD, Morton is director of the Social Sciences Experimental Laboratory (SSEL); in January 2014, the SSEL held an inaugural Winter Experimental Social Sciences Institute.

Morton's own work focuses on voting experiments. In a controlled setting — a "laboratory" — subjects are told the rules of an "election" that is purely imaginary, except for the cash payouts: You favor candidate A. If A wins, you'll be paid $25, but supporters of B will get just $5. If B wins, every voter gets $20. Under these conditions, will A's supporters make the "ethical" choice to maximize total payoff and minimize inequality?

The work goes far beyond this simple example: multiple candidates, simulated opinion polls, imposed "campaign spending" effects, majority requirements, runoffs, and voter groups of up to 1,000 can all add complexity.

The gold standard in science is experiments, but we used to tell ourselves that we can't do them in political science.

Rebecca Morton, NYUAD professor of Politics.

"Lab in the field" projects add specificity. With colleague Xiangdong Qin of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Morton is supervising lab-type "voting" by Tibetan students at Southwest University for Nationalities, in Chengdu, China. These studies examine coalition-building and willingness to support an ethnic Chinese candidate in a local election that also involves a Tibetan candidate. In this study participants can discuss the question among themselves before "voting."

Morton is also planning to measure differences in theoretical voting behavior among Muslim populations in three culturally different areas: northern China, Malaysia, and the UAE.

Experiments that permit consultation among subjects, she noted, are not about "voting" in the narrow election-day sense, but rather involve "deliberative group decision-making." That subject resonates in the UAE and any place that seeks good governance but does not have Western-style electoral democracy.

Anyone who follows Western politics understands that voter behavior is complex, involving many factors beyond a nominal total payoff. Morton acknowledges that her approach offers no absolute answers. "We're trying to isolate one particular mechanism," she said, "abstracting away from all the other things going on in an election. We can learn something by isolating certain factors. That doesn't mean the other things aren't important. Other political scientists are looking at candidates' personality factors, facial appearance, and smiles and the like."

Like any new field, experimental political science has its challenges and "there are still people in the political science community who are skeptical," she conceded.

Real elections provide a wealth of data, and many scholars are consulting with political parties in the US and other countries, Morton noted. But "I don't do that kind of stuff," she said, largely because "parties don't want to randomize" — if they send a mailing, for example, they intend it for every voter, depriving a researcher of any control group.

Some political science experimenters come from psychology, some (including Morton herself) from economics, some from statistics, and so on. Among these groups there are, she said, "arguments about what methods are best, but I prefer to think these are all complementary."

Another issue in the community is the use of deception in experiments. Subjects may be shown a fake New York Times article, for example, to see if it changes their perception of a political issue. Morton is wary: "As experiments become more widespread, the more we do this kind of deception the more subjects will be wary of us."

Any new field has growing pains, but the growth is undeniable. "The way I see this," Morton sums up, "is that it's very much research in progress. We're doing one little piece…later we can work on putting all the pieces together."

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).