Monday, September 17, 2012

Scholarship in the Swirl of an Election

By Associate Professor Justin Levitt

Every four years, the presidential election contest dominates the news, bringing with it not only daily policy and political scuffles, but plentiful skirmishes over the rules for conducting elections and persuading the electorate. Every 20 years, the presidential election roughly coincides with the decennial redistricting process, as political lines are drawn to restructure representation across the country. The year 2012 represents one of those comet-like convergences, where the full infrastructure of democracy is not only buffeted by winds of change but becomes suddenly, fleetingly, salient -- and new and old media alike examine every development in painstaking detail.

In such an environment, just as vulcanologists flock to the latest eruption, election law scholars tend to find the daily developments irresistible. We rationalize the engagement by understanding that we can offer context and texture and a bit of both legal and historical perspective. But when we're most honest with ourselves, perhaps it's just that we want to be where the action is, in a field to which we've devoted our professional lives. Your Loyola election law faculty aren't immune -- both Jessica Levinson and I have attempted to engage the day-to-day in a way that we hope contributes more good than harm.

But perhaps particularly in the swirl of an election season, it's also tremendously useful to be able to step back as well. Which is why I'm grateful for two opportunities this past week to think more deeply about election law scholarship that's not dependent on yesterday's headline.

On Thursday, Josh Douglas (Kentucky), Derek Muller (Pepperdine), and Jessica Levinson (Loyola) joined me at Loyola for a small junior scholars' gathering on the law of democracy, taking advantage of Josh's trip to southern California. The research, though preliminary, promises to be both bold and diverse, encompassing an investigation of civil pleading pertinent to election litigation, an examination of the curious constitutional structure of candidate qualifications, and a reconceptualization of the fundamental struggle at the heart of campaign finance law. I learned quite a bit, and am grateful for my colleagues' critique of my own early thoughts.

Then, on Friday, I took Rick Hasen up on a gracious offer to join him at UC Irvine for an election law symposium featuring many of my heroes in the field. The symposium was titled "Foxes, Henhouses, and Commissions: Assessing the Nonpartisan Model in Election Administration, Redistricting, and Campaign Finance." The papers and discussants' remarks represented a broad array of outlook and methodology, from the rigorously empirical to the richly philosophical to the painstakingly historical. The room was super heated, but the discussion was coolly engaging; proceedings are here for those who wish to see for themselves. I'm delighted to have had such spectacular fora to develop long-term research in the midst of the madness of the moment.

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