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Public Agenda Introduces Inaugural Grantees for Democracy Renewal Project, Kickstarting Exploration of Trust and Access to Elections

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Public Agenda Introduces Inaugural Grantees for Democracy Renewal Project, Kickstarting Exploration of Trust and Access to Elections

March 27, 2024 – Public Agenda, a research-to-action nonprofit dedicated to building a democracy that works for everyone, today announced its inaugural slate of grantees for the Democracy Renewal Project. $500,000 in funding will be dispersed to ten teams of scholars from political science and other social science disciplines to conduct practice-relevant studies showing how to achieve universal access to elections while strengthening trust and confidence in elections–two fundamental pillars vital for the legitimacy and resilience of our democracy.

The Democracy Renewal Project marks the first application of Public Agenda’s new Research Accelerator model, a method for catalyzing, translating, synthesizing, and communicating rigorous research on practice-relevant questions on core institutions of American democracy. 

“Public Agenda launched the Democracy Renewal Project because a major barrier to success in efforts to strengthen democracy is the lack of high-quality, actionable evidence,” said Andrew J. Seligsohn, President of Public Agenda. “I’m pleased by the breadth, quality, and importance of the studies we are funding through this first cycle. These projects will be valuable to people seeking to make improvements to our democracy, and they demonstrate the value of investing in rigorous research that’s focused on questions at the heart of pro-democracy practice.”

The funded projects will explore various aspects of electoral participation, including the impact of placing election observers at polling sites and informing voters about accessible records, as well as strategies for public officials to foster trust and bipartisan engagement. Additionally, studies will examine the impact of targeted outreach on access and trust, particularly among communities and families affected by the criminal justice system, and will produce new data to inform future research on equitable ballot access and communications by election officials. 

As the funded research projects are completed, Public Agenda will transform findings into practical tools and resources tailored for pro-democracy advocates, policymakers, and funders. Below is a summary of the research projects to be undertaken by the inaugural grantees of the Democracy Renewal Project:

  • Emily Rong Zhang of the University of California Berkeley and Naomi Sugie of University of California Irvine, in partnership with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, will expand the scope of Project VOICES, a randomized controlled trial that tests text-messaging interventions to enhance political participation among individuals with criminal records and their families. Dr. Zhang and Dr. Sugie will study whether information and outreach through trusted messengers can build trust among this historically underrepresented constituency. 
  • Hannah Walker of the University of Texas at Austin, Ariel White of MIT, and Allison Harris of Yale University will study strategies to encourage electoral participation among eligible Texas voters with felony convictions. Dr. Walker, Dr. White, and Dr. Harris will investigate the effectiveness of mobilizing this population through personal relationships and social networks. 
  • Wendy L. Hansen of the University of New Mexico and Lonna Rae Atkeson of Florida State University, in partnership with Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the New Mexico Secretary of State, will study the effects of nonpartisan academic election observers. Dr. Hansen and Dr. Atkeson will implement a field experiment at vote centers in Sandoval County, New Mexico, to investigate whether the presence of clearly identified university elections observers and nonpartisan election observers bolsters voter confidence.
  • Lauren Prather of UC San Diego and Sarah Bush of the University of Pennsylvania will use a survey experiment to examine the differential impact on trust of international nonpartisan election observers, U.S. nonpartisan election observers, and political party-affiliated observers. In a second survey experiment, Dr. Prather and Dr. Bush will study voters’ attitudes toward state legislative candidates who favor reforming state election law to allow nonpartisan observers. 
  • Joseph Dietrich of Towson University, and Melissa Rogers of Claremont Graduate University, in partnership with Four Directions Native Vote, will generate a scoring system to quantify differences in electoral access across U.S. counties. Dr. Dietrich and Dr. Rogers, along with research partners Tessa Provins, Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, and Jean Schroedel, Professor Emerita at Claremont Graduate University, will create a publicly available dataset that stakeholders can use to identify disparities and advocate for greater electoral access at the local level. 
  • Thessalia (Lia) Merivaki of Mississippi State University and Mara Suttmann-Lea of Connecticut College, in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship’s Algorithmic Transparency Institute, will build a dynamic, publicly available database of election officials’ social media communications. The database will serve as a resource for election officials, researchers, advocates, and policymakers working to use communications to improve voter experience and trust. 
  • Andrew Ifedapo Thompson of George Washington University will test whether providing accurate information about demographic change in the U.S. increases support for voting rights. Dr. Thompson will conduct a large-scale survey experiment using piloted priming messages about demographic change and assess the extent to which such messages reduce perceived racial threat and increase support for democratic values. 
  • Don Waisanen of Baruch College, CUNY and Amy Becker of Loyola University Maryland, in partnership with Living Room Conversations, will study whether participating in structured, small-group dialogues can increase prosocial attitudes and lay a foundation for bridge-building in communities. Dr. Waisenan and Dr. Becker will also examine whether volunteer participants in dialogue events differ from the broader public and generate recommendations for increasing participation in effective small-group dialogue models. 
  • Robb Willer of Stanford University, and Chagai Weiss of Stanford University, in partnership with the National Governors Association, will use a naturalistic field experiment to test the effects of exposure to TV ads featuring Republican and Democratic Governors advocating together for democratic norms. Dr. Willer and Dr. Weiss will examine whether bipartisan messages–one component of the Disagree Better Campaign–can reduce polarization and increase trust and participation in elections. 
  • Emily Wager of Rice University, in partnership with the North Carolina State Board of Elections, will study whether informing North Carolina voters that voting records are public in the state and encouraging them to access their own voting records can increase confidence in the integrity of the electoral administration system. 

These grantees emerged from a substantial pool of applicants who responded to Public Agenda’s inaugural Democracy Renewal Project Request for Proposals and were chosen through a highly competitive process involving in-depth review by a panel of external experts. The strong response to the RFP indicates the high level of interest among researchers in providing evidence of value to the democracy renewal field.

There are many more exciting developments to come from the Democracy Renewal Project. Stay up-to-date by registering for Public Agenda’s newsletter here.

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