Carnegie Mellon University
October 21, 2020

An Interdisciplinary Look at American Elections

Grand Challenge Seminar gives broad perspective on voting

By Michael Henninger

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094

A historian, a data scientist and a game theorist walk into a Zoom.

In "How We Vote," a Grand Challenge Seminar for first-year students, three Carnegie Mellon University faculty bring a multidisciplinary perspective to a remote examination of the process of voting in American democracy. Lisa Tetrault, Teddy Seidenfeld and Aaditya Ramdas conceived the idea for the class, which includes many first-time voters, in order to take a deep dive into a complex and unstandardized system.

In addition to the course, the three professors are scheduled to participate in a Faculty Dialogue entitled "Behind the Ballot Box," on Oct. 29 in which they will discuss the history, philosophy, data and technology behind voting.

"We take American democracy for granted, and forget that we need to be informed to keep it alive," said Tetrault, an associate professor in the Department of History who specializes in the history of gender, race and American democracy. Tetrault has spent the last two years touring the nation and then shifting to online speaking engagements in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment (it passed Congress in 1919, and was ratified in 1920).

"Each week in our class, the three of us apply our own expertise to a different topic, like voter suppression and voter fraud," Tetrault said. "We're trying to give students knowledge about how the system is structured and has evolved historically. They can see and unpack that framework and apply it to the current political situation."

While Tetrault leads the lesson on voter suppression, Seidenfeld and Ramdas are able to provide their own invaluable additions to the class.

"Things like social media play a big role in elections," said Ramdas, an assistant professor in the departments of Statistics and Data Science and Machine Learning. "That was never the case for hundreds of years of elections and then suddenly social media has a big role. Now, interference can happen via social media."

"We take American democracy for granted, and forget that we need to be informed to keep it alive," — Lisa Tetrault

Ramdas points to the wide variety of ways that data is integral to modern elections. Internally, campaigns use data to target where they spend money. They use polling data to determine the issues that matter in each state and how they change over time. Statistics and computer science are vital parts of the technology involved in modern ballot casting and post-election vote count auditing.

"Voting is like any other real-world problem," Ramdas said. "It is inherently extremely multidisciplinary. I'm not equipped to talk about every facet of it. When we can get experts on multiple topics in the classroom together, I think it's better for the students, and maybe they get a better sense of how to seek out solutions."

Seidenfeld is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Philosophy and Statistics in the Department of Philosophy. As a game-theory expert, he said that he hopes students take from the course that a straightforward treatment of a candidate's behavior may not reveal what is actually occurring.

"Politics is a kind of game, and the decentralized nature of our voting system can serve as a feature rather than as a bug for dealing with manipulation and fraud," Seidenfeld said. "Bringing students to the cutting edge of the topic is what makes this kind of education exciting for me. It's not just education about the complexity of the system, but actually showing students where they could be making a positive contribution."

— Related Content —