As a teenager, Barry Burden often found himself watching the nightly news, especially at election time. He went on as a college student to work on political campaigns, but found he liked studying elections more than taking a side in the debate. Now, as a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is helping to create a world-class center for those who, like him, are fascinated by the electoral process and what it reveals about our society and culture.
“Elections are the hallmark of our democratic system,” Burden says.
The Elections Research Center, founded by Burden and his colleagues in 2015, fosters cutting-edge academic analysis of national and state elections. Burden hopes it will draw faculty and students from across campus to partner on research projects and discuss new ideas. Financial support to recruit and train graduate students is one of the center’s top priorities.
In this first presidential election cycle since the founding of the center, the race has been fun to watch and study, Burdensays. Just back from the Iowa primaries, he was able to see the candidates up close, and observe how events unfolded. While Burden says the most surprising parts of this election so far have been how few Democratic candidates came forward, and the success of non-politician Donald Trump, every election is different and unexpected in its own way.
It’s also rewarding to work with students on an academic subject that is constantly changing and affects their own daily lives.
“It’s racing with current events,” Burden says. “We are part of the thing we are studying.”
In December, following the elections, the ERC will host a full-day symposium, bringing together the best minds on campus and beyond to hash out the results. The tradition will continue after each midterm and presidential election.
“Hopefully this event will provide an opportunity for faculty to share the explanatory power of their research with the public, as well as identify factors likely to be pivotal in subsequent elections,” Burden says.
The Election Research Center builds on a long tradition of elections-related study within the political science department at UW-Madison, which is among the top five most popular undergraduate majors in the College of Letters & Science and has a strong graduate program.
It’s popular for a reason: courses relate to how our country functions, which can be good training for almost any career in business, law, or government. Burden’s favorite course to teach is Elections and Voting Behavior. The students grapple with why people vote certain ways, what can affect voter turnout, and how factors like candidate characteristics and the current state of the economy affect voters’ choices. The result of elections reflects not just the attributes of the winner or his or her political party, but the United States society at that moment in time.
“It’s a big, complicated country,” says Burden, “And that can be revealed on election day.”
Students like Garrett Kurzweil, now a senior, seek Burden out for his expertise and style of teaching.
“This is a chance to learn from someone who has devoted his life to this subject,” says Kurzweil, who has taken three of Burden’s courses and is double-majoring in political science and real estate. Kurzweil plans to go to law school.
Burden holds the Lyons Family Chair in Electoral Politics at UW-Madison. The professorship is named for Jeffrey and Susanne Lyons, who are financial and intellectual supporters of the Elections Research Center. Lyons, who is a member of the board of visitors in the political science department and former president of Charles Schwab’s asset management business, graduated in 1978 from UW-Madison, intending to work on political polling. Life took his careerin other directions, but he still describes himself as an “election junkie.”
“The Elections Research Center enables us to attract and retain the best and brightest faculty and graduate students, and to build a brand within the university,” Lyons says. “We want to shine a light on the great research being done.”
By establishing a permanent center focused on U.S. elections, the department will maintain its reputation over the long term.