July 1, 2019

VSU’s Bernard Tamas Awarded Grant from MIT Election Data and Science Lab

Dr. Bernard Tamas

VALDOSTA — Dr. Bernard Tamas, associate professor of political science at Valdosta State University, has received an exclusive grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab (MEDSL) to study voter underrepresentation and electoral bias in United States House of Representatives elections throughout the last 150 years.

Tamas is one of 11 researchers from across the nation chosen to receive MEDSL’s 2019 New Initiatives in Election Science grant, which is awarded annually to those who propose an innovative or interesting approach to the scientific study of elections and election reform.

Tamas will spend the next year doing something that has never really been done before — compile an accurate, comprehensive dataset of district-level election results for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1870 to 2018 and make that data available to the public.

“Believe it or not, we don’t really have very good historical data on elections to the House of Representatives or any other positions except for the presidency,” he said. “We are limited in what we know, and it’s because putting together data is hard. So we’re planning on producing the best set of House election data out there today.”

Tamas will use this data to conduct a historical analysis of flaws in the American election system. This includes disproportionality, or when the percent of seats a party wins does not match the percent of votes it received, and gerrymandering, which is when district lines are redrawn to favor one party over the other. 

“One of the issues political scientists are most focused on is how gerrymandering is warping the American political system,” Tamas said. “Whenever state legislatures redraw district lines, they can skew the results in favor of their own party, even to the point where the party receiving the most votes can end up winning only a minority of seats. This is a big concern.

“Gerrymandering was less severe of a problem 50 years ago, but we still had instances where the Democrats or Republicans would win way more seats than their actual vote. Gerrymandering is not the only factor causing electoral bias. I’m looking at all of these issues from a historical perspective and arguing that electoral systems can bias seat gains in a number of different ways.

“And what I have previously written and published is that the problem is much more extreme than just gerrymandering. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly shown, including in its most recent decision, it does not intend to fix the gerrymandering problem. But even if it did, we still have serious problems with the way that the U.S. runs elections because we don’t use proportional representation. Because of that, there are various ways in which the electoral system can register incorrectly what the voters want and who the voters support, owing to factors like low turnout and voter suppression.

“This research is timely with elections coming up in 2020 because these issues are seen at all levels of government. And I’m arguing that it’s a much broader problem than most people think, which will make it harder to fix.”

Tamas’s research with MEDSL will build off of his previous work — much of which is presented in his recently published book, “The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties: Poised for Political Revival?” — and he plans to continue this line of research after the grant project ends.

“I’m passionate about the workings of democracy,” he said. “I am passionate about democracies remaining stable. We’re in a period where democracies could become weaker, and we have to do everything possible to make representative democracies work effectively.”

Tamas also plans to involve VSU students in the research, allowing them access to valuable experiential learning opportunities.

“Everyone needs to understand how data works, and in the Department of Political Science we do a lot in terms of training students on how to do research,” he said. “One very important component of modern academic research is how to use technology in order to build clean data on something crucial and, in this case, unexplored. Knowing how to manage data, how to make sure that it doesn’t have any errors in it, and so on is very important. It’s a skill that can serve our students well for lots of different careers.”

Founded in 2016, the MIT Election Data and Science Lab applies scientific principles to how elections are studied and administered, with the goal of improving the democratic experience for all U.S. voters. 

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