Once, as a graduate student at the University of Missouri, I wisecracked, “the entire world should be turned over to political scientists for experimental purposes.” I was joking and everyone knew it… but I never lived down that moment.

The world should not be turned over to political scientists – or anyone – for experimental purposes, of course. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if political scientists had more sway over the state of political speech in this country.

With Democratic candidates each suggesting that the other is unqualified to be President, and Republican candidates busy comparing their respective manhoods and insulting one another’s hometowns, perhaps a calmer, more data-driven approach would help.

I thought about this while reflecting on an exchange I had at the MPSA conference this year with a colleague named Jesse T. Richman, who teaches at Old Dominion University.

Together with ODU colleagues Gulshan A. Chattha and David C. Earnest, Richman produced a paper in which they argue that they have evidence of non-citizens voting in U.S. Elections (.pdf). In fact, Richman et al claim that the non-citizen vote is enough to swing a close election such as Minnesota’s 2008 race for U.S. Senate, which flipped party control. I don’t buy it.

With regard to voter fraud in general, voluminous research such as that by Justin Levitt (.pdf) of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and Lorraine Minnite (.pdf) of Rutgers find very minimal evidence of it occurring, but plenty of evidence of it being marshaled in support of restrictive laws such as proof-of-citizenship, that is, laws that require first-time voter registrants to show a birth certificate or other evidence that they are US citizens. Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia now have such laws on the books, as does Arizona. Court challenges to the laws are ongoing. My own research, with colleagues Chapman Rackaway of Ft. Hays State and Kevin Anderson of Eastern Illinois, has found that these laws lower voter turnout. They also result in tens of thousands of individuals being kept off the voting rolls in Kansas alone. With regards to the claims about non-citizen voting, Stephen Ansolabehere, Samantha Luks and Brian F. Schaffner rebut Richman et al by arguing that they are cherry-picking rare events in a huge dataset-events that are almost certainly due to measurement error. Ansolabehere, Luks, and Schaffner also test Richman et al‘s hypothesis with panel data, that is, survey results in which the same respondents are contacted repeatedly over time, and their analysis finds exactly zero cases of non-citizen voting.

All of this came to a head when I presented my paper at this year’s MPSA conference, citing Ansolabehere, Luks, and Schaffner and my own data to argue that proof-of-citizenship laws are unneeded and that they lower vote registrations. Richman was in the audience. After my presentation, he pushed back by noting that his research claims that non-citizens vote on U.S. elections, it does not purport to show that undocumented immigrants vote, as I had claimed it did. I acknowledged and will correct the error. We talked further after the panel, and Richman told me he has some new data responding to Ansolabehere, Luks, and Schaffner, and that he would be happy to share it with me. He also requested a copy of my paper, which I uploaded to the MPSA conference website and have e-mailed directly to Richman. Richman also sent me a tentative new data analysis, which he argues will show some non-citizens who cast verified votes that had been overlooked by Ansolabehere, Luks, and Schaffner. I plan to look more deeply into it.

I still have serious concerns about the way Richman et al‘s research is discussed in the popular media. While the authors stress that they are finding evidence of non-citizen voting, not undocumented immigrant voting, they have to be aware of the way in which their research has been described in the conservative news media, including the National Review, breitbart.com, and NewsMax. All of these outlets do use the term “non-citizen” rather than “undocumented (or illegal) immigrant,” in describing Richman et al’s research. However, they do not make clear the distinction and they frame their headlines around “illegal votes,” which, while technically true, could easily mislead readers into thinking that the discussion is about undocumented immigrants voting.

Essentially, Richman et al are arguing that on rare occasion, a legal resident or other non-citizen living legally in the US may register to vote and on ever rarer occasion, that person may cast a ballot. Even if true, this is an entirely different argument than the way their research is used, which is to stoke fears of undocumented immigrants subverting American elections. The laws passed to combat this alleged problem have excluded tens of thousands from the rolls. Furthermore, I don’t trust the politicians and interest groups who have made it a cornerstone of their careers to promote such laws.

That said, Richman is convinced he is onto something that has at least academic significance. His additional data and analysis deserve open-minded scrutiny in the name of academic discovery. My own work speaks to the citizens denied their right to vote by proof-of-citizenship laws, not on the possibility of non-citizen voting, so I cannot say with certainty that Richman et al are wrong, no matter how apprehensive I am about how their research is being framed in the popular media. At a personal level, I found Richman to be soft-spoken and approachable, and we both kept our conversation focused on the data. He e-mailed me a follow-up the day after the conference. At no point did Richman or I make our disagreement into a personal one, or impugn one another’s integrity. While our dispute may have political and policy ramifications, we are both committed to keeping this discussion where it belongs – on the data, and the methods used to analyze it.

Academics of all disciplines are certainly capable of vindictive, petty behavior. Time and again we invoke the old adage, “in academia, the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” Yet sometimes, the stakes are not so low. In those cases, if we make the effort, political scientists can disagree without personalizing the disagreement, resorting instead to the data and the analytics used to interpret them, instead of ad hominem attacks. Those are still the professional norms of our discipline, even if we fall short of them at times.

Presidential candidates, please take note.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.

Note: The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.