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Science  22 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5807, pp. 1890-1891
DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5807.1890

AAAS Forum: Research, Action Needed to Improve U.S. Elections

With concerns mounting about the integrity of United States elections, AAAS and Carnegie Corporation of New York convened a panel of influential election experts to chart a course of research for improving the voting process.

Critics say that long lines at polling places sometimes discouraged people from voting in recent elections. [Credit: Getty Images]

What emerged from 2 days of meetings in Washington, D.C., was a shared view that elections need a 21st-century makeover—better technology, more training, and a renewed commitment to ballot box access and accuracy. To achieve that, many participants said, researchers and election administrators should collaborate more closely to assess problems and find practical solutions.

“Experiments are being done, but we have no way to capture the knowledge that is gained in a systematic way,” said Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources and a member of the commission convened in 2005 by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. “As a result, we're constantly reinventing the wheel—or the flat tire.”

The meeting at AAAS “illustrated you can bring a variety of disciplines together to tackle the continuing problems facing the U.S. election system, especially by teaming with those election administrators from the field willing to explore new and better ways to increase voter confidence in the system,” said Geri Mannion, chair of Carnegie's Strengthening U.S. Democracy Program. “There are still a lot of challenges, but it's clear there are solutions, if talent and funding can continue to be invested in ensuring that all American voters have the election system they deserve.”

The conference came just after U.S. mid-term elections that featured extensive problems, including long lines at polling places, shortages of paper ballots, and mysterious glitches in high-tech electronic voting machines. A post-election New York Times review [26 November 2006] found that such problems affected tens of thousands of voters in more than 25 states.

The conference, held at AAAS on 27 and 28 November, featured 40 policy-makers, election administrators, scholars, and activists, including Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert. It was organized by Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program.

Dana DeBeauvoir, left, and Shirley Malcom

The conference was a sequel to a 2004 forum at AAAS at which 18 experts called for a crash course of study and reform to make results more reliable and to promote better access by voters, especially those who historically have encountered impediments to voting.

This year, too, the participants discussed specific problems that plague voting at every step of the process—arcane election laws, anomalies in voter registration databases, long lines at polling places, confusing ballot designs, and inaccurate vote counts.

But another, less obvious, theme was persistent: Researchers are frustrated that they are unable to gain access to useful election data, and election administrators often feel undermined by critical research that fails to account for real-world limitations.

“There is a big gulf right now between practitioners and voters and researchers,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the elected clerk of Travis County, Texas, who has served as an election monitor in South Africa and Bosnia. “Are we working on improvement in the voting system, which is what our goal is? Researchers' goals are publishing and advancing the field.”

Thad Hall, a voting scholar at the University of Utah, acknowledged that narrowly focused research, without context, can exaggerate problems. But, he added, election officials may be sensitive even to accurate criticism. “They have an interest in promoting trust and confidence,” Hall said, “and they don't want to do things that diminish that.”

An initiative in Colorado's Larimer County offered a possible model of positive collaboration between election administrators and researchers.

Responding to the 2002 passage of the Help America Vote Act, Larimer pioneered the use of “vote centers,” said County Clerk Scott Doyle. The county committed to voter education, then opened easy-access, electronically linked sites at which voters from any precinct could go to cast ballots. Researchers from Rice University in Texas followed up with a study of this year's election in Colorado, finding that the centers get high marks from voters and may help attract some who otherwise might not vote.

Many of the experts agreed that means are available now to improve voting, but that research is needed to help persuade elected officials and policy-makers to back reform and pay for it.

Still, a number of critical election issues won't be easily resolved. Participants disagreed on the value of electronic voting machines that have paper trails versus those that don't. Activists criticized voting machine manufacturers, but administrators stressed the need for constructive engagement with them. Malcom, among others, suggested that election administration should strive to be nonpartisan. But these and other issues are ripe for research, and that, participants said, is the value of the meeting.

The day after the meeting at AAAS, officials from Carnegie Corporation of New York and several other private foundations gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss funding strategies for future election-related research.

Frankel told participants at the AAAS forum that in early 2007 the Association will launch the first-ever searchable, Web-based database on election research. Also, he said, a report summarizing the meeting will be issued early next year.


See the Stars of Science

The 173rd AAAS Annual Meeting convenes in San Francisco 15 to 19 February with a program that features fascinating symposia and lectures and accomplished researchers from across the fields of science, technology, and policy.

The theme of the meeting is “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being.” Among the plenary speakers will be Susan Solomon, co-chair of the working group that is assessing the scientific basis of climate change for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Other plenaries will be delivered by Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, and Larry Page, co-founder of Google.

Family Science Days, the free annual event for children and their parents, will feature Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of the popular “MythBusters” program on the Discovery Channel.

To find out more and to register, visit

Chinese Fellowship Winners Headed To San Francisco

From left, Gong Yidong, Yanhong Wang, and Wu Chong are among winners of the 2007 AAAS Fellowships for Science Reporters in Developing Regions.

Six young Chinese journalists are the winners of the 2007 AAAS Fellowships for Science Reporters in Developing Regions. The award, sponsored by the publisher Elsevier, brings science writers to the AAAS Annual Meeting, where they can cover the latest research and mingle with their fellow science writers from around the world.

This year's winners are Gong Yidong, China Features; Wu Chong, China Daily; Yanhong Wang, Xinhua News; and Guo Kun, Beijing Times, along with honorary fellows Ding Yimin, Xinhua News, and Jia Hepeng, China Daily/

The Fellowship “gives me a unique opportunity to participate in a marvelous science festival held by one of the largest scientific societies,” Wang said, adding that she is especially looking forward to talking with her colleagues in the United States.

This year's Annual Meeting theme, “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being,” is “extremely important for China, which is undergoing overwhelming changes,” Yidong said.

Chong said news of the Fellowship was “an inspiration to my career” and that it came as a surprise “because I still considered myself too young a reporter to win any prestigious award like this.”

The Fellowship pays for travel, lodging, and meals at the San Francisco meeting. Four fellows were chosen from a pool of reporters nominated by their editors at leading Chinese media organizations. The two honorary fellows were chosen in recognition of their excellence in science reporting. William Chang of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Beijing office was the independent judge for the award.

Chang said that open and unbiased news reporting is on the rise in China, “but there is still great room for further improvement. I feel that all the applicants recognized this, and made their best efforts under the present constraints.”

The Fellowship winners “will be included in the AAAS writers' family, where they can seek support from this network and help the world community to better understand Chinese science,” Chang added.

The program is an important part of AAAS's mission to encourage international scientific dialogue and development, according to Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer.

“China is clearly an emerging important place for science, and one key piece of trying to develop a scientific infrastructure is making sure that science journalism is also strong,” Turekian said.

The Fellowship is a program of EurekAlert!, AAAS's editorially independent Web site for reporters. Rahman Culver, who works with Karen Yuan to oversee the fellowships, said that past winners have praised the program for its role in connecting reporters in developing countries to a wider audience

The Fellowships were launched in 2004 with a seed grant from the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation, with additional support in 2005 from the Global Alliance for Vaccines & Immunization, The Vaccine Fund, and the Rotavirus Vaccine Program. Past winners include science reporters from Africa, Latin America, and China.

“Elsevier would like to help equip science journalists from all over the world with the necessary skills and insights in order to write accurate ‘good science’ articles that benefit their communities,” said Shira Tabachnikoff, the publisher's director of corporate relations.

“Being able to support independent science reporting in China is incredibly meaningful,” said Ginger Pinholster, director of AAAS's Office of Public Programs. “In their lifetimes, these promising young journalists will be in a position to tell the story of China's transformation.”

Information about this year's Fellowship recipients, including their winning entries, will be posted to EurekAlert!'s Multi-Language Portal at

—Becky Ham

AAAS Names Science Journalism Winners

A compelling story on the current scientific understanding of Alzheimer's disease, a series on the impact of climate change in the American West, and a lively look at efforts to grow a better banana are among the winners of the prestigious 2006 AAAS Science Journalism Awards.

Large Newspaper—(Circulation >100,000): Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer, for “Probing a Mind for a Cure,” 26 February 2006.

Small Newspaper—(Circulation <100,000): Michelle Nijhuis, High Country News, for “The Ghosts of Yosemite,” 17 October 2005; “Save Our Snow,” 6 March 2006; and “Dust and Snow,” 29 May 2006.

Magazine: Craig Canine, Smithsonian, for “Building a Better Banana,” October 2005.

Television: Samuel Fine, Julia Cort, Vincent Liota, Peter Doyle, and Dean Irwin, NOVA scienceNOW, for a program on RNA interference; the chemistry of fuel cells; two wizards of supercomputing; and the fastest moving glacier in the world, 26 July 2005.

Radio: Bruce Gellerman, Steve Curwood, Terry Fitzpatrick, and Chris Ballman, Public Radio International's “Living on Earth” program, for “Some Like it Hot…”; “Cold Fusion: A Heated History”; and “Pebble Bed Technology—Nuclear Promise or Peril?” 30 September 2005.

Online: Larisa Epatko, Leah Clapman, Rich Vary, and Katie Kleinman, “Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” for “The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: 100 Years Later,” 20 March 2006.

Children's Science News: Beth Geiger, Current Science, for “Fade to White,” 6 January 2006.

The awards, which have been given to nearly 400 journalists since the competition began, are sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, L.L.C. Each category carries a $3,000 award. The winners will pick up their plaques at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco in February.

—Earl Lane

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