One of the roles of ILLAPS, as outlined in a previous post of ours here, is to leverage the knowledge, resources, and expertise of our staff and faculty to solve information problems for government entities and non-profits. Another important role of ILLAPS since its foundation has been conducting our own original research on topics that are of use and interest to academics, policymakers, and engaged citizens to solve public problems. In the spirit of building on previous successes and our goal, this post is going to discuss some of the current ILLAPS research.
State and local innovations in electoral systems – One of the problems facing America at the national, state, and local levels is growing discontent with America’s electoral system. Following the 2020 US Presidential election, just 60% of voters report trusting the results of American elections, with similar overall results before and after the 2020 election, though with stark partisan differences following the results of the 2020 election (Morning Consult 2020). We’ve seen similar troubling trends in assessments towards democracy since at least 2006 (Reinhart 2020).
In response to this growing discontent, some states and localities are looking to solve this problem through changes to their electoral systems. There are numerous electoral innovations at play in the US and elsewhere including ranked-choice voting, approval voting, so-called “jungle” primaries, multi-member districts, cumulative voting, and many more. Some places use more than one of these systems combined. For example, Alaska recently approved utilizing a top four “jungle” primary system combined with a ranked-choice voting electoral system beginning in 2022. Electoral innovations are something readers here in Illinois might be familiar with considering that the Illinois House of Representatives previously was elected through “cumulative voting” for over 100 years with Illinois being the only American state to utilize this method.
An overarching question related to these innovations that is of particular focus for us is what are the consequences of these new systems, especially compared to the current dominant electoral system? The consequences may include electoral results, government policies, attitudes towards democracy, political polarization, campaign strategies, representation, trust in government, and party politics. ILLAPS, and other researchers, are beginning to explore these electoral systems to better understand what they mean for America and Americans. We are in various stages of the research process. We currently have a draft of a working paper around the impact of RCV on support for third-party candidates, which is under review and will be shared on our website soon. We will also be sharing additional working papers in this area in the near future.
State and local variation in democracy –Relatedly to how votes are counted in the electoral system is who gets to vote, how they vote, the electoral boundaries of their elected officials, and what rights they have as a voter. Due to America’s decentralized system, there is substantial variation in what democracy looks like in the American states. To highlight this variation, think about the differences in voting rights in the Jim Crow era American South compared to other states. Simply put, it was systematically more difficult for some people to vote in the South than in other states and there was large variation in the levels of democracy in America at the state level. While perhaps not as blatant and dramatic, there still exists significant democratic variation at the state and local level and this variation leads to successes and issues. This variation in democracy has consequences for governance, policy, public attitudes, and representation. Building on our work towards state and local electoral systems we are developing and moving forward research projects related to variation in state and local democracy. We also see this as a useful opportunity to make comparisons not only within America at the state and local level, but also comparisons between America and other countries to understand how state and local democracy varies around the world, the consequences of this variation, and potentially what lessons can be learned through comparison.
State and local government financing and budgeting – A long-running area of research for ILLAPS has been on state and local government financing and budgeting. This previous work has covered government borrowing and debt, budget deficits, the impact of recessions on state budgeting, local economic development, and public works financing. Some of our faculty are currently working on research related to state and local government “green” bonds, which are used to finance projects that have a positive impact on the environment. The focus of this research is on the decision for governments to issues green bonds along with the opportunities and challenges associated with green bonds. Work on government financing and budgeting work also occurring through the Illinois Institute for Public Finance under Dr. Ken Kriz.
State and local transportation policy - This vein of research focuses on equity and inclusion in the transportation context and the resulting consequences for our communities. For example, this research has shown that those in low-income minority neighborhoods with relatively infrequent transit disproportionately depend on rideshare apps to access opportunity - like jobs, medical care, education, and government services. These same riders must also overcome biases in accessing rideshare - like lower average star-ratings and longer average wait times. Researchers in this vein are also concerned with investigating the relationship between race/ethnicity, motor vehicle crashes, and the medical and financial consequences thereof. More broadly, this research seeks to better understand how transportation related law and policy can help our communities thrive. This work connects to our long running partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation for research and evaluation.
Identity, politics, and policy – Identities, both our own and the perception of others, shapes how we view and interact with the world, including our politics and policy preferences. Understanding the way identities shape politics and policies has been an area of focus for ILLAPS faculty and staff for a number of years now. Current work in ILLAPS looks to understand how identity, particularly national identity, leads Americans to process information, shapes evaluations of the economy and COVID pandemic and influences political support.
Additional topics – The primary focus of our independent research is on the above areas, but we also have projects in additional areas. For example, in line with the “legal” portion of our name, ILLAPS staff are involved with two research projects relating to human rights law. Additionally, ILLAPS staff are also working on a project regarding the impact of public service announcements on public attitudes towards issues, which has recently been accepted at American Politics Research. Third, ILLAPS faculty are working on the impact of state options under Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) on children’s insurance, health, and educational outcomes. Fourth, ILLAPS faculty are working to understand measures of authoritarianism. Fifth, ILLAPS staff and faculty are working on a number of potential projects related to the COVID pandemic. Lastly, ILLAPS staff recently published research on local government cooperation across the US/Mexico border.
While the above-mentioned research topics are our current focus, we’re also aware that we live in a fast-paced and ever-changing world. ILLAPS will continue to engage thoughtfully with the problems faced locally, regionally, and nationally to understand what other issues the resources, knowledge, and experience of our faculty and staff could be adjusted to focus on. We’re not looking to pivot to new areas on a whim, but if something makes sense for us and we can make a worthwhile contribution adding additional projects may be something we do.
Morning Consult. 2020. Election Trust Tracker. Accessed 12/16/2020. https://morningconsult.com/form/tracking-voter-trust-in-elections/
Reinhart, R.J. 2020. Faith in Elections in Relatively Short Supply in US. Gallup. Accessed 12/16/2020. https://news.gallup.com/poll/285608/faith-elections-relatively-short-supply.aspx