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SPA Professor Coauthors Book on Election Security

SPA Assistant Professor Seo-young Silvia Kim

As contested U.S. presidential results lead some voters to question the security and integrity of American elections, one SPA scholar can say that she has written the book on the subject.

SPA Assistant Professor Seo-young Silvia Kim co-wrote Securing American Elections: How Data-Driven Election Monitoring Can Improve Our Democracy, which introduces evaluation methods for measuring free and fair elections. It was published on November 26 by Cambridge University Press, and a digital version is available for free through December 2.

“This book is trying to answer how citizens, candidates, and stakeholders can know that an election was conducted with integrity,” said Kim. “We as researchers come in as an external entity to provide an additional layer of security and assurance to the voters, in cooperation with election administrators.”

Kim, who earned her PhD from Caltech this year, coauthored the book with R. Michael Alvarez, Professor of Political and Computational Social Science, and fellow graduate students Yimeng Li and Nicholas Adams-Cohen. The team’s research, funded through a grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, focused on the 2018 midterm elections in Orange County, California. County election administrators were highly cooperative and open to scholarly input on metrics and tools, said Kim.

“Our combination of methods ranged from voter and poll worker surveys, to social media monitoring, to voter registration database auditing,” said Kim. “These methods can come together to create a safety net to assure that elections have been conducted freely and fairly and in the manner in which they were designed.”

The study, which discovered no significant errors or challenges to integrity, represents the importance of the field of election science, a previously underappreciated academic branch of the political science family.

“Election scientists can dissipate the myths,” Kim said. “For example, the ‘blue shift’ that occurred after Election Day as the votes-by-mail were being counted occurred because those who vote by mail are actually more Democratic, or are likely to lean Democratic, for a variety of reasons.”

The project’s website tracks its expansion from Orange County to Los Angeles County and the state of Oregon. Their March 2020 study investigated long voting lines in LA County’s 2020 primary using similar methods, identifying database synchronization issues that slowed down the voter check-in process. An LA Board of Supervisors report cited their work in planning remediation. Kim hopes that the book’s example will inspire similar relationships with election administrators in other states and jurisdictions, eventually leading to nationwide expansion.

Kim sees the current lack of public trust in election administrators as an opportunity to introduce greater transparency in the process. “The conspiracy theories arise because the public hasn’t seen the work being done . . . Election administrators are improving public trust by bringing in voters to see the process. Some have had livestreaming of how they count votes and conduct recounts.”

When asked to identify the biggest current threat to the electoral process, Kim pointed to hacking or software or clerical malfunctions that could affect key states’ voter registration infrastructure and lead to disenfranchisement. A printing error in Los Angeles County, for example, accidentally left 118,000 eligible voters off of its rolls in 2018.

Kim’s current research covers the dynamics of political behavior, both in election administration and campaign finance. She expects incredible insights into election security and integrity through an ongoing audit of voter registration data, she said.

“There is a need for election science, and I think the field will grow after this importance has been demonstrated.”

For more information, and to download the book for free for a limited time, visit the Cambridge University Press website.