published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, October 2004, Volume 4, Issue 2

The National Center Needs Your Help in the Development of a New Project: The STEM of Democracy

By: Wm. David Burns

As I write this, it's just two weeks from November 2, our next national election day. Voting has already begun and serious controversies about voting began even before the voting did.

Our edition of this morning's New York Times offers testimony to this: It carries an article about a legal challenge to New Jersey's electronic (touch-screen) voting machines (the lawsuit questions their accuracy and reliability and calls for verification" or receipts, you could say). A second report details problems with Florida's early voting system. The front page features a photo of President Bush's parents and lots of other people waiting in line to cast their votes in Texas - fully 15 days before November 2.

For me, this image of "early voting" morphed the traditional meaning of "election day" into "election deadline." It stimulated other thoughts about intended and unintended consequences: The goal of increasing voter turnout and participation rates by being attentive to the complexities of modern life and our many competing schedules and commitments argues for these "convenience-enhancing" reforms (and the growing use of "absentee" ballots). But do these reforms have the effect of "privatizing" or atomizing what in the past, at least, was largely a public event? Does this deprive us of one of the few civic events common to people from all walks of life? Will we soon be changing what was private act carried out in public into a private act carried out privately? And if so, does this matter? What role does technology play in all this? How do people's views of technology affect their appraisal of the legitimacy of processes in which the most advanced technologies are employed? How does our view of science and the advances that science has made possible affect our confidence in the quality of "scientific" results?

It makes sense that we'd be thinking about elections and voting as we begin the first national election since 2000. There are many sources for this heightened attention: Public discourse has lately tended to equate widespread voter participation and the capacity to conduct fair elections with democracy, itself. The suggestion is that voting is in some profound way an essential–and to listen to some commentators, nearly a sufficient–indicator that a state has a democratic form of government. Think of the importance being attached to the inauguration of free and direct presidential elections in Afghanistan and the promise of a national legislative election in Iraq in January as markers of the emergence of these states as modern democracies.

We know that having elections is a necessary, but by itself an insufficient, specific indicator of a democratic regime (the former Soviet Union had any number of elections and, to the best of my recollection, none of them were cliffhangers and nobody questioned the ballot designs!)

It is inconceivable to Americans, however, that we could have a democracy without our constitution, our democratic institutions, and elections that genuinely assessed and represented with considerable accuracy the will of the people who participate in them. Elections really do matter in a democratic state; they are not exercises in civic somnambulism.

Suppose that, on November 3rd and in the days that follow, we lack a clear winner in our presidential election and are faced with serious challenges regarding the process and the technologies employed in the complex "system" of voting, as well as serious doubts about the accuracy and legitimacy of the results. Suppose we have a result that, for many, calls into question the tradition of non-direct election of our national leaders. In that event, the need for serious academic attention to these issues will be manifestly evident. We won't need to make a case for curricular attention. Rather, I expect we'll be faced with a demand for such attention.

Suppose that none of the above happens, or at least, none of it happens to an extent that keeps the results in serious doubt. Assume the election goes off without a hitch, most of us are satisfied with its legitimacy, and, for some of us at least, we're even happy with the results. In that eventuality, we'll need other stimuli and other vehicles to encourage students to learn about this dimension of our civic life. One source of encouragement might come from the possibility that the study of democracy and its institutions (including voting) could lead to some real learning in the STEM disciplines.

SENCER offers an attractive platform in either eventuality. What terrific candidates elections and other mechanisms of democratic participation are as complex, contested, capacious civic issues that can be illuminated by what those who know mathematics, statistics, systems engineering and design, computer sciences, and the social sciences can teach! Regardless of what happens in November, it is more than fair to say that elections have become terrific examples of what June Osborn once called, "multidisciplinary trouble."

We know this to be true because last Summer at Santa Clara a group of about 30 participants in SSI-2004 met to discuss what science, mathematics and public policy could be taught "through" a focus on voting, elections, proportional representation, districting, the conduct of the decennial census, and a host of other elements of our Republic's institutions and forms of governance. The list generated by the group was extensive, wide-ranging and impressive. (We'll be publishing a summary gleaned from the discussions by Richard Keeling in a future e-newsletter.) In that meeting, thanks to Ed Lorenz of Alma College, our group even got to inspect a ballot from Canada - something that led many of us to reflect that we'd never seen a ballot other than the ones we'd used ourselves (and, of course, many of us have voted without a ballot at all, in the traditional sense)! This offered subtle testimony to our parochialism ("doesn't everybody vote they way I do?") and to how lightly and occasionally most of us give any serious thought to these issues.

The conversations in Santa Clara ranged widely, from controversies about source codes and verification, to systems theory, to ideas about "fairness" that emerge from advanced algebra. They touched on a set of semiotic and philosophical questions about what we think voting really means or signifies and why or whether it ought to matter at all.

With this in mind and the encouragement of the participants in that August 8th meeting, we at the SENCER national center are now developing ideas and soliciting interest in what we are calling the "STEM of Democracy Project." What's in a name? In this case, we are saying STEM for at least two reasons: The first, of course, is that, in many important respects as suggested above, the act of voting is the basic "stem" - as in the main trunk of a plant - of democracy. Voting is one of the elemental, functional expressions of one's personal participation in the governance of a state, especially a democratic state. Voting is a stem in the sense that so much else flows from, or grows from, the act of casting a ballot.

In spite of this, up until just recently, voting has failed to get the attention it should in many college programs to encourage "civic engagement" and service learning, often, it seems, because voting is denigrated as purely instrumental ("high school civics") and doesn't qualify as, to use Benjamin Barber's phrase, "strong democracy." This is unfortunate because the downplaying of voting may have itself resulted in decreased voter participation. If it were up to college students with their current <30% participation rates in national elections to "water the stem of democracy," the results would be an even more wilted plant, indeed.

It will be interesting to see what the participation rates will be among college students this year - rates that will reflect, to be sure, both the heightened interest in this year's race, but also a concerted effort to rectify the old denigration of voting, itself. One of many such efforts to increase student participation in the process is the college initiative of the United States Election Assistance Commission, which has awarded modest grants to some 15 institutions to engage college students as poll workers in local election districts. We look forward to having the reports of these efforts.

That's the "stem." The capital S-T-E-M in the STEM of Democracy, as SENCER e-newsletter readers will surely know, refers to a second meaning. In this case STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics–all areas of concern for higher education, in general, and the specific areas of focus of the National Science Foundation's work in improving undergraduate education, in particular. We want to highlight the idea of elections as the stem of the democratic process, just as we claim that an academic focus on elections will help organize and improve learning in the STEM fields. This is, of course, the fundamental SENCER ideal and goal.

We think the right place or locus for this project is where the other SENCER courses and projects are: the classroom and, to the extent that it is feasible, the surrounding community as sites and beneficiaries of community based research.

We need your help to develop this idea, gather people interested in testing it out, and create materials that will assist faculty who want to teach "through" some of the contested issues and continuing challenges in our democratic system "to" learning in STEM fields. Here's what we need from you:

First, we need to hear from you if you are currently teaching a course or even part of a course that features issues that we are loosely gathering under the heading STEM of Democracy. Could you contact us, share your syllabus and assessment results, consider nominating your project/course as a model, or at least let us know what you are doing?

Second, we need to know if this idea interests you and if you'd be interested in exploring it more intensively with other scholars via e-mail or, if we can arrange it, at a meeting or two, or in a special session at our SENCER Summer Institute 2005 or other regional meetings or disciplinary gatherings.

Third, we'd like to know what resources you think you would need to consider developing a stem of democracy project or course on your campus. Would a backgrounder that identifies what might be taught and how that teaching would improve learning in mathematics, statistics, engineering and the social sciences be useful to you and your colleagues? Do you have any authors to recommend, resources to call attention to, other suggestions?

Fourth, while we can easily think about how the knowledge residing and being developed in mathematics, statistics, computer science, social science and engineering have great relevance to the issues in democracy (and while Barbara Tewksbury's course model on geology and its relationship to development is suggestive of still other dimensions of this issue), it isn't clear how the canonical elements in biology, chemistry, and physics, to pick three big domains, can be illuminated or taught through the issues raised by elections, voting technology, proportional representation and other issues. But let me be quick to say that I suspect this condition has a lot to do with the failure of my imagination and the limits of my knowledge. So, if you have any suggestions, hunches, or evidence, by all means, please share them with us and we'll share them with others, as well.

Please forward this request to others on your campus and elsewhere who may have an interest and contact me by email (, telephone (732) 873-1539 or letter (National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, 215 Market St, 4th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101.)

We've often said that SENCER seeks to deal with two great trends that appear to be colliding with one another: (1) the alarming decline in the study in the STEM disciplines by American college students, almost none of whom take any more than the most basic required courses (this is true for science and math majors, as well), a condition that is aggravated by the poor retention of science and mathematical knowledge and skills by those who are only minimally exposed to science learning, and (2) the growing number of highly complex and often hotly contested matters of civic concern that are either in some way created by advances in science, engineering, mathematics and technology and/or that require some advanced knowledge in one or more STEM field in order to craft and implement the best possible policies, laws or regulations. Elections and modern possibilities for voting have now become perfect exemplars of the issues covered in the second trend. We in the SENCER National Office and the Center look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions on these matters and to working with you to develop the STEM of Democracy Project in the coming year.

Oh, and don't forget to vote on November 2nd, unless you've done so already!