Vote of Confidence

In an age of misinformation and voter mistrust, Prof. Paul Gronke is delivering the data.

By Sarah Lloyd | June 21, 2024

Like most of Prof. of Political Science Paul Gronke’s work, the , or EVIC, came from the real world.

Gronke came to 91大神猫先生千人斩 in 2000 from Durham, North Carolina, where he had worked at Duke University and only voted in person. Election season communications had the same flow they had in most of the country, starting slow and escalating to a fever pitch as Election Day drew closer. Making his new home in Portland just after Oregon became a vote-by-mail state, Gronke noticed a different pace: election mail came on strong at the beginning of the season, and stopped coming to his house abruptly after he’d sent in his ballot. He offhandedly mentioned how weird that was to one of his students—and that stray observation would lead to Gronke becoming one of the country’s foremost experts on early voting and the business of elections.

That student, Misha Isaak ’04, was fresh off a year working on congressional campaigns and as a congressional staffer. Of course the mail stopped, explained Isaak. He showed Gronke how to pull up state voting records and track a ballot’s progress. “Campaigns aren’t going to waste money sending you direct mail after you’ve voted.”

Gronke, who had been publishing scholarly work on elections for more than 15 years by then, admits that his first reaction was outrage that campaigns had access to his voting data, but it quickly turned to curiosity. “It’s a different way than I’d ever thought about elections and voting in my whole academic career,” he says.

It wasn’t just Gronke adjusting to vote-by-mail—Oregon voters had recently gone through their first presidential election under the newly expanded system, the first of its kind in the United States. “Very few people had started to engage with it [academically],” says Gronke.

“An empirical political scientist, he immediately saw huge potential in the treasure trove of data that campaigns had access to,” Isaak recalls.

Gronke became one of a handful of academics focusing on vote-by-mail, and Reed gave him and his growing network of student collaborators freedom to direct their own research. In 2004, it made sense to build an official home for the work so, along with students Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum ’06 and James Hicks ’08, Gronke founded the Early Voting Information Center. In 2018, after the project grew in scope, it was rechristened the Elections & Voting Information Center, conveniently with the same acronym.

Meanwhile, Gronke started attracting a certain brand of Reedie into his orbit, both through his teaching and through playing on the political science softball team, the Swing State Sluggers, which, after a slow start, would go on to win four straight Renn Fayre tournaments.

“Reed attracts the most unique intellectuals,” says Michael Richardson ’07. Gronke attracts those in that set who want to "take his tools" and make a real impact in the world. Galanes-Rosenbaum says, "Paul is one of the few professors from my time at Reed who seemed keen on bringing students and alumni into his work and extending the reach beyond the walls of the institution."

The center’s birth happened “somewhat organically,” recalls Galanes-Rosenbaum, who continued working as a research assistant after graduation. “The idea back then was to continue pursuing research on early voting in its various forms.”

“It was just literally a letterhead and a business card for a while,” says Gronke. “I managed to make it seem real enough to people that we began to attract funding . . . you create the body and you hope the skeleton fits in.”

It worked: The center’s first bones arrived in 2006, when EVIC received its initial grant. More substantial money came from the Pew Center in 2008, which propelled Gronke into doing more applied research through foundations and nonprofits. It raised his profile within election research, putting him on the same stage as better-funded programs at larger universities like MIT and Caltech.

“I can guarantee you people in our space, when you say 91大神猫先生千人斩, they say Paul Gronke,” says Michelle Shafer, senior program advisor at EVIC. She worked in election technology in the private sector and had followed Gronke’s work for decades before joining the program in 2021. “That’s how they know the school.”

But the real secret to EVIC’s success, and the success of its alumni, is outside of academia.

“One of the things we did that I think was truly groundbreaking was to work with the Pew Center on the States to connect academics doing research on early voting and elections with actual elections administrators, the people who were implementing these new laws,” says Galanes-Rosenbaum. “It’s really unusual for these kinds of conversations to happen.”

Ordinarily, the people studying elections are siloed from people actually making elections happen, she explains. They rarely impact one another directly—academics aren’t talking day-to-day logistics with local elections officials, and most administrators aren’t reading academic research.

Approachability comes naturally to Gronke—he once brought a hot apple pie on a plane to DC for a meeting—and he resists silos. He blends into academic conferences, local election offices, and nonprofits by staying open-minded and adapting to each space’s unique norms.

For Gronke, “understanding your place in this world and [how] sometimes you’re not in academia, you’re in somebody else’s space” is a necessary part of the work.

In those meetings between academics and election administrators, Gronke says, “some of my colleagues were frankly, a little bit rude . . . very taken up with the importance of their work and how smart they were.”

He adds, “These people that we're interacting with—election officials—some of whom are elected, are really quite vulnerable. [If] they say the wrong thing or give you a piece of information that gets used the wrong way, they’ll lose their job, and we’re here in this protected ivory tower, very privileged.”

As EVIC grew in scope, so did Gronke’s expertise. First it was early voting, both vote-by-mail and in-person. Then it was automatic voter registration—for example, registering to vote when you’re renewing your driver’s license. Gronke and his cohort published academic work on public trust and voter disenfranchisement, too. One of Gronke’s most widely cited works is a 2005 paper presenting new ways to analyze trust in government and confidence in institutions. Another 2015 analysis noted that following the news predicted hyperpartisan opinions on voter ID laws more than general education or even knowledge about voter ID policies.

Gronke’s easygoing demeanor made him a go-to quotable source in the local and national press for an increasingly broad body of election expertise, and he became a bridge between academics and the public, too.

“You gotta say something important and interesting in 30 seconds and say it in a way that is newsworthy and quotable,” he says. “For a lot of academics, they aren’t good at that because it means . . . sometimes you have to simplify things in ways to get them to broader audiences. And a lot of academics don’t want to do that . . . but I happen to be good at it.”

He’s not just good at it. According to his students, it’s a key part of his philosophy.

“Paul was and is distinct from most people in his field in that he actively pursues opportunities to talk about his work with other audiences—that is, outside academia,” says Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum. “He speaks with the media, he is friends with elections administrators, he looks for ways to work with advocates and public figures.”

“Paul’s desire to do work outside of the purely academic realm is a key part of why EVIC exists,” says Jay Lee ’19, who started working at the center as a student in 2017.

Making academia accessible is nice, but the philosophy of being accurate, transparent, and respectful held the nitty-gritty work to a higher standard. Peter Miller ’06, now a senior research fellow at NYU’s Brennan Center, recalls uncovering some faulty data while trying to replicate an earlier study.

“Paul launched into an extended speech about the importance of conducting research in a responsible, transparent manner,” he says. “He included a line— ‘Do your research like you could be called to testify before the Senate at any time’—that still rings in my mind.”

In 2018, after years of working with election staff on the ground, EVIC brought academia and election administration even closer together by surveying local elections officials, or LEOs, themselves—understudied, underpaid professionals with deep institutional knowledge whose workplace conditions have a high impact on the business of elections.

Despite the crucial role they play in elections, explains Gronke, their work is routinely minimized. While some election officials in populous counties are in charge of multiple staff members in a busy office, in rural areas elections could be just one aspect of a job that includes other jurisdictional recordkeeping, like pet licenses.

“The typical American local election official is a 55-year-old woman earning less than $50,000 a year,” explains Gronke, pointing out that for most LEOs, their job title is “clerk.”

“When I say the word ‘clerk’ to you, what comes to mind?” he asks, prompting for “secretary.” “When I tell you that 85% of these are women, it’s starting to line up, isn’t it?”

The jobs of both Gronke and election officials fundamentally changed after Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, launching a widespread misinformation campaign alleging voter fraud.

Gronke says that when they started the LEO studies in 2018, they didn’t anticipate “for 2020 to become [when] the president of the United States would begin attacks on local election officials nationwide.” Election denial has had a chilling effect on the community, and one in four LEOs, according to EVIC’s 2022 survey, has received threats of violence.

Gronke had spent 20 years unknowingly training for the moment when the American public needed a friendly voice to authoritatively counter the wild right-wing conspiracy theories that arose out of the 2020 presidential election. He suddenly got very busy.

“When you’re trying to counter information from an individual that has 300 million followers on Twitter, it gets hard," Gronke says. "You’re just a lonely academic over here at a small liberal arts college and you’re countering rhetoric coming out of the White House. It’s tough and it gets tiring.”

Gronke, then a Carnegie fellow, says he “did very little academic research at that point . . . I was fielding calls and countering misinformation and trying to get accurate information up.”

“Since 2020 [work] really hasn’t slowed down for me,” he says. “The 2024 election for me started pretty much [on] January 7th, 2021.”

Gronke, facing four years of 50- or 60-hour workweeks, is stepping away from teaching to work full time at EVIC, though he will remain on faculty as emeritus professor.

“For the external world, nothing will change,” he explains. “I will still have a Reed affiliation, a Reed office, and for all intents and purposes, will be exactly the same person . . . My plans are to continue to work to support and advance safe, secure and accessible elections, to develop pedagogical materials to encourage students to consider elections work, and, I don’t know, to probably just continue to do what I’ve been doing.”

EVIC’s future lies partially at Portland State University, where its research director, Paul Manson ’01, is on the faculty of Hatfield School of Government. Moving forward, the center will be co-led at both Reed and PSU, expanding its capabilities and ushering in graduate research assistants.

Inside the culture at Reed, the change will be more obvious. Like Gronke’s work, his EVIC alumni have found themselves comfortable both deeply embedded in academia and far outside it. Miller became a nationally recognized expert on redistricting, even coauthoring a paper with Gronke in 2020, and Hicks is a professor at Columbia Law School.

Those who took a different path include Dan Toffey ’07, who worked as a research assistant after graduating, then took a hard left turn: after starting his career in politics, he became employee No. 11 at Instagram. Now, he uses his background to “lead a team of researchers and cultural anthropologists that analyze and decode the creative ways young people use [Meta].”

“Without Paul Gronke, I would have quit 91大神猫先生千人斩,” says Richardson, who went on to cofound the ad tech company Airship. People in Paul’s “orbit,” he says, “have found their own paths that allow them to implement massive change . . . and I am convinced that it has been Paul’s teaching, his philosophy, his pragmatic approach, and his encouragement that has made that possible.” 

Tags: Academics, Professors, Research