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OVERVIEW POL 301—Campaigns and Elections Term Paper Instructions Option 2—Reform

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POL 301—Campaigns and Elections Term Paper Instructions Option 2—Reform Paper
The reform paper option requires you to (1) select an area of electoral politics in the United States arguably in need of reform, (2) write a comprehensive historical analysis of the origins and development of the problem, (3) craft a review of the scholarly literature addressing the problem, and (4) recommend a reform that would be effective and politically feasible. Your recommendation for reform should be based on the historical analysis of the problem and the literature review you have conducted in the paper. The paper should be roughly 10-12 pages in length.
There are many areas of reform you might wish to tackle. Below is a list (by no means exhaustive) of topics that are suitable for this paper:
• The presidential nomination system (or party nomination processes more generally)
• Campaign finance
• Redistricting
• Voting rights
• Election security
• The Electoral College
• Regulations on social media pertaining to campaigns
Relative to paper option 1 (the empirical paper), you have more flexibility as to how you organize the paper. But all papers must include the following sections.
Your paper must include a section outlining why you think reform in the area you have chosen to study is necessary. Reform implies that a process or practice is failing to achieve some ideal or value. As such, a major part of this section involves identifying that ideal and making a case for why it ought to be prioritized over other, perhaps competing, ideals. Some ideals or values to consider, many of which no doubt overlap, are as follows:
• Ensuring the stability of the political system
• Boosting the (democratic) legitimacy of the political system
• Fostering equality of political representation
• Enhancing individual or group liberty
• Increasing transparency in the political system
• Enhancing democracy (maximizing citizen input into political decision making and/or
improving voter capacity)
• Providing sufficient and clear choices for voters
• Maximizing political competition and electoral accountability
• Promoting effective governance
• Fostering political compromise and the balancing of political interests
• Enhancing the process of aggregating interests to form political majorities
Some areas of reform involve tradeoffs between competing ideals or values. For example, legally limiting the size of campaign contributions individuals can give to candidates makes representation more equal by leveling the playing field. But such restrictions also limit the liberty of donors, restricting individual freedom. Similarly, while mandatory disclosure of campaign contributions enhances transparency and may add to voter knowledge, it intrudes on the privacy of campaign donors. Accordingly, where ideals or values compete with each other, you need to make an argument for why you think one should be prioritized over the other.
This section should be a comprehensive historical analysis of the origins and development of the problem you have chosen to study. For example, if you are studying the presidential nomination system, this section would include a historical analysis of how political parties have nominated presidential candidates throughout U.S. history and—importantly—how and why these processes have changed. The section would necessarily highlight pivotal developments (for example, the first political nominating convention used by a political party and the McGovern-Fraser Reform Commission of the early 1970s) as well as major court decisions relevant to party nominations of U.S. presidential candidates. Such an historical analysis is no easy feat, since current laws, rules, and practices governing political processes are often the result of multiple prior reform efforts layered on top of each other. If done correctly, this section should give the reader a clear picture of how the current institutional arrangements came to be.
In nearly all of the areas pertaining to political reform, there is a significant body of scholarly literature. Your task is this section of the paper is to distill and synthesize this literature in the form of a critical literature review. The aim is to illuminate scholarly perspectives on reform, including how scholars have framed the problem about which you are writing and, where appropriate, their findings and conclusions on the effects of reform efforts. For example, if you were studying redistricting, you would want to review the literature evaluating the extent to which state independent redistricting commissions have reduced partisan gerrymandering (see for example Carson et al 2014).
Note that the literature review should be a survey of the scholarly research on your topic. This means your sources will consist mainly of academic books, political science journals, and law reviews written by scholars.1 Assembling an annotated bibliography—a brief summary of individual books and articles—can be a useful starting point for your literature review. But it is only a starting point. As Powner (2015, 63) writes, an effective literature review “should review and critique the literature, not individual pieces in it.”2 Effective literature reviews are often organized thematically in a way that illuminates different perspectives on the problem.
Forestier (2017, 27) offers some useful questions to ask in thinking about how to organize your literature review thematically:
• Do different studies approach similar questions in different ways?
• Are the findings of these studies mostly consistent?
• Are there areas of significant disagreement?
• How have similar research questions been answered through time?
• What was the progression of our understanding of an idea?
It can also be useful to organize a literature review by schools of thought, describing an ongoing debate between different scholarly camps in a particular topic area (Howard 2017). Ultimately, there is no magic formula to writing a good literature review. It is more art than science (Forestier 2017, 27).
In most academic research, the aim of a literature review is to set up your own research question (for example, by exposing a gap in the scholarly literature). For the purposes of this paper, the literature review will serve a somewhat different purpose: to survey scholarly conclusions about the reform area on which you are working.
As with the historical analysis, a review of the literature addressing political reforms is not easy, given the sheer volume of scholarly writing in this area. This is particularly true in areas of reform such as campaign finance reform, where the amount of scholarly writing can overwhelming. In these areas, review essays such as those found in the Annual Review of Political Science can be helpful in getting a handle on the literature. For a more aerial view (while still rich in detail), Bruce Cain’s (2014) book, Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary, offers a thoughtful framework for thinking about political reform more generally.
In this section you should lay out your reform proposal. Your proposal need not be completely original. You might, for example, propose to tweak a reform already in existence, or to “import” a reform used at one level of government to another level. As an example, you may wish to advocate for creating a version of Seattle’s publicly-funded campaign finance voucher system for congressional and presidential elections. You can also look to other countries for ideas (Norris and Abel van Es 2016). Either way, your reform proposal should include sufficient detail as to give readers an idea of how it will work in practice (recognizing, of course, the space constraints of a term paper.)
This section should also address the politics of the reform you are proposing. Is there reason to believe that the public would support it? 3 Does a supporting coalition of political elites exist? Who would oppose your reform, on what grounds, and how (if at all) might opponents be won over? Is your reform likely to withstand judicial scrutiny? If you are proposing a reform already in existence somewhere, you can look at the politics of enactment and judicial rulings where it was passed.
You might also consider the most efficient route for advancing your reform proposal. Changing party or legislative rules is easier than changing laws, and changing laws is easier at the local and/or state level than at the national level. Given the high levels of partisan polarization currently wracking the nation, reforms that require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution seem particularly unpromising at the present moment. Yet this doesn’t mean you should rule out all reforms requiring a constitutional amendment. Indeed, such reforms may be worth proposing so they are ready to be introduced should a more promising political environment emerge [Kingdon 1984]). Just be sure to be clear about your aims in your reform proposal.
The conclusion should be a synthesis of your paper’s main sections: the values at stake in the area of reform you are studying, the historical analysis of the problem(s) reforms in this area have been intended to address, scholarly perspectives on reform efforts, your own reform proposal, and its prospects for enactment. The conclusion is your last chance to tie everything together for the reader and make a convincing case for your reform proposal. The aim is to make your work stick with the reader.
The final section of your paper is the references or works cited section. Be sure to cite all sources using the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) citation format. (A useful guide can be found at APSA format uses in- text parenthetical citations with references at the end of the document; endnotes are used for expanding on information in the paper without unduly cluttering up the main body of text. (See the endnotes in this handout as an illustration.) Below is an example of APSA citation format using the works cited in the handout:
Cain, Bruce. 2015. Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Carson, Jamie L., Michael H. Crespin, and Ryan D. Williamson. 2014. “Reevaluating the Effects of Redistricting on Electoral Competition, 1972–2012.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 14(2): 165–177
Drutman, Lee. 2020. Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Forestiere, Carolyn. 2017. Beginning Research in Political Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hinchliffe, Kelsey L. and Frances E. Lee. 2016. “Party Competition and Conflict in State Legislatures.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 16 (2): 172–197.
Kingdon, John. 1984. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little Brown.
McCabe, Brian J. and Jennifer Heerwig. 2020. “Diversifying the Donor Pool: How Did Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program Reshape Participation in Municipal Campaign Finance?” Election Law Journal. DOI: 10.1089/elj.2018.0534
Norris, Pippa and Andrea Abel Van Es. 2016. Checkbook Elections? Political Finance in Comparative Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
Powner Leanne C. 2015. Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Thomsen, Danielle M. 2014. “Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Polarization in Congress.” Journal of Politics 76 (3): 1-12.
Since readers can find the titles of books and articles on the reference page, you should not include article and book titles in the text of the paper. Instead, include only a parenthetical citation—for example, (Drutman 2020).
You may wish to use tables and/or figures in the paper. If you do, they can be included within the paper or in an appendix between the end of the paper and the reference section. Wherever you decide to put them, be sure that all tables and figures are clearly numbered and have titles. Use the table or figure number when referring to it in the text. For example, “As the figures in Table 1 demonstrate….”
• Read these instruction guidelines carefully!
• Make the paper roughly 15-20 pages in length (including text, tables, references, etc.);
• Use headings and subheadings—they help guide the reader;
• Use page numbers;
• Write clearly, use correct grammar, and proof read to make sure your paper has no
typographical errors. Only highly polished papers will receive A grades, and producing a polished paper inevitably requires you to write and revise several drafts. First drafts are never sufficiently polished to be A papers.
• Be thorough yet concise.
1 I cannot stress this enough. Your literature review should not be filled with pieces by journalists or activists. Research by individuals affiliated with organizations such as Brookings or Cato is appropriate, as can blog entries written by scholars.
2 Powner (2015, 63) adds that an effective literature review “should look across pieces more than down into individual ones.”
3 Systematic support will of course be difficult to gauge if the reform idea is completely original. The Pew Research Center ( sometimes asks survey questions about reform areas more broadly, such as campaign finance ( americans-want-to-limit-campaign-spending-say-big-donors-have-greater-political-influence/), as does the American National Election Studies ( .

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