February 15, 2013
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) (Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) (Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Eric Cantor and House Republicans are on one of their periodic attacks against funding for social sciences, with political science as a prime target. Cantor attacked one grant in particular today, “a recent $266,821 grant to figure out why voters chose the candidates they did in the 2010 election.” The political scientist, Walter Stone, whose work Cantor attacked, responds over at the Monkey Cage, describing his findings from the research funded by that grant. But a more general question might be: Why is it in the public interest to generate knowledge about voters?

There’s a real answer to that, beyond a general sense of how “democratic” the political system is. The truth is that elections don’t just exist; Congress and the states regulate them. Heavily. Congress and the states set campaign finance laws, determine who votes and how easy it is for them to vote, set the times and circumstances of elections, map out the districts, regulate what political parties may and may not do, set the conditions under which parties choose their candidates and more.

These are, for the most part, not voluntary; many of these tasks are specifically required by the Constitution or are inherent in any form of democracy. Others, such as regulations on parties, are mostly voluntary (Congress could choose to leave the parties unregulated, as they mostly did in the 19th century).

Either way, however, and as with all regulation, good working knowledge of the facts of the situation should lead to better law. Of course, much of our political regulation is motivated by partisanship (and one might say that the public owes the parties no market research, and I’d agree). But not all. Most lawmakers claim that even when it comes to political regulation they are out for the public good, and many of them really mean it — at least in part.

So, yes, one very good reason for the public to support research on voting and other aspects of political action is because if we value democracy, we need to learn more about it in order to better get it right. But at a more basic level, legislators and government agencies regulating elections and politics will do a better job if quality research informs their decisions. To get back to the question Stone’s research investigates, it’s very difficult to draft sensible campaign finance laws or a sensible system for redistricting if we have no clue about the advantages of incumbency (which turns out to be quite difficult to nail down).

As Stone says, this isn’t an argument for one discipline against another, or for scientific research generally compared to other possible options in the federal budget. But at the same time, political science is a very small portion of research support, which in turn is a very small portion of the overall federal budget (and election studies is only one part of political science research). So it’s not as if we’re talking about huge gains elsewhere if we shut down studies such as Stone’s.

But the bottom line is that, yes, studying voters and elections is very much in the public interest.