Local election database helps political science LEAP forward
Rice’s Marschall develops new tool to fill scholarly void
BY JESSICA STARK
Rice News staff
Though 96 percent of elected officials in the U.S. represent local rather than state or federal jurisdictions, the field remains a relatively unexplored area of study, in part because the nearly 90,000 local governments document and account for elections in different ways. Armed with recent grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, Rice’s Melissa Marschall is hoping to change that.
She is spearheading the Local Elections in America Project (LEAP) to create a centralized, comprehensive and cost-effective local-elections database. The software created for the database will systematically collect, digitize and disseminate data on city council and mayoral elections. The goal for the LEAP database is to provide unparalleled opportunities for learning about local elections and the political, racial and socio-demographic features of American cities.
“Right now, it’s an enormous and sometimes expensive challenge to track down the results of various elections throughout the country,” said Marschall, the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science. “That’s why you see very little study of local elections — there’s no infrastructure for it. Although some counties and states do a decent job of compiling local election data and making the data available online, this is still the exception rather than the rule. And even in these cases, most data are reported in HTML or PDF formats that are not very easy to work with when it comes to integrating and analyzing data.”
Studying these local election results as a whole can help advance understanding of our political present and future, Marschall said. For instance, the LEAP database would be able to run a query to find the current makeup of the electoral body throughout the country and find how many women are serving as mayors and what percentage of offices are held by minority candidates.
Marschall and her research team will use the LEAP database as the foundation for their research project that focuses on the centrality of race and ethnicity in local electoral politics.
“The increasing racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the U.S. population is most evident at the local level,” Marschall said. “So local elections provide the best arena for testing a whole range of theories about minority candidates ‘path to office’ and the trajectory of their political careers.”
The study seeks to answer whether the lack of minority representation in elected offices is due to the defeat of minority candidates or the absence of minority candidates. Marschall and her co-principal investigator, Paru Shah of Macalester College, will also look at how a candidate’s race and ethnicity shapes the competitiveness of municipal elections and how voter turnout is impacted when a minority candidate is on the ballot.
“We believe our study will substantially advance our knowledge of how race intersects with campaigns and elections,” Marschall said. “(We’re) paving the road for even broader theories of race and democracy while at the same time providing a looking glass to the future.”
While LEAP was designed to advance the research of social scientists and scholars, the interactive Web database will be open to the general public.
“We thought it was important to maximize access and use of the database for social scientists, educators and stakeholder groups like the National League of Cities,” Marschall said.
LEAP is funded by the NSF’s Division of Social and Economic Sciences (political science) and the Office of Cyberinfrastructure CF21 Venture Fund for promoting the reuse of Cyberinfrastructure elements.
Marschall’s NSF grant is the latest in a notable history of such success within the political science department at Rice. Over the past decade, the department has placed second in terms of the total number of NSF political science grants received by any political science departmentin the country, regardless of faculty size.
“This important grant received by Professor Marschall along with those received by other faculty are reflective of the innovative and influential research being conducted in the Department of Political Science,” said Mark Jones, the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, professor and chair of political science and fellow in political science at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.