Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Caroline Tolbert, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, has been named a 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship recipient. Tolbert is one of 26 winners of the prestigious fellowship, which awards up to $200,000 to fund the data analysis, writing, and publishing of high-caliber scholarly research.

caroline tolbert
Caroline Tolbert

Tolbert has been a faculty member at Iowa for 15 years and was named one of two Distinguished University Professors by the UI provost in 2020. Later that year she was named the Lowell G. Battershell University Distinguished Chair at Iowa. Her work focuses on elections, public opinion and voter turnout, along with creating opportunity for addressing inequality in American democracy. In 2019, she was ranked a top 40 female political scientist from PhD granting departments and in the top 400 most-cited faculty in the United States by The Political Science 400.

The Carnegie fellowship will allow Tolbert to continue her work on how voting in elections can become more accessible, which was also the subject of her most recent book, Accessible Elections: How the States Can Help Americans Vote, published in October 2020. The volume is Tolbert’s ninth; she also has published more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles.

“We started working many years ago on which state laws make voting easier, reduce the cost to individuals and increase turnout,” says Tolbert. “That project looked at state adoption of absentee, no-excuse ballots, in-person early voting, and same-day registration. Iowa has all three of these laws.”

But because her book was published leading up to the 2020 general election, Tolbert and co-author Michael Ritter, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University, were missing crucial data from the most recent election, which was one of the most unique in decades.

“It was a landmark election conducted during a pandemic where the highest percentage of people ever voted by mail,” says Tolbert. “Sixty-six percent of all votes cast were either early in person or via absentee mail. This is as close as we’ve come to nationalizing these laws and 2020 had the highest voter turnout in a century.”

The question, of course, was whether the record participation and turnout were due to increased access as the result of new voting laws or simply a product of the pandemic.

“Early research said it was just going to be the same groups of people who always vote, but our research found that these laws not only increase overall turnout, but they help historically disadvantaged people vote,” says Tolbert.

The pandemic created a natural experiment for Tolbert because states that usually never would have opted for mail-in ballots did so.

“We have this window to study what it would be like if everybody did it,” she says. “What we want to do is update the data from the 2020 election. The Carnegie award will allow us to take the work we’ve done on previous elections and update that with 2020 data.”

Even when the data is updated and a sequel to her book is written, Tolbert says her ultimate objective is to inform public policy that seeks to modernize and update the U.S. election system.

“Our goal is to have strong enough data to show that we need a national accessible election framework and some basic laws that all 50 states implement,” says Tolbert.