Commentary & Analysis

Staff Spotlight: Using Research to Give Power to the People

Whitney Hua

What’s the connection between voting methods and social media platforms?

Whitney Hua, our new Director of Applied Data and Research, conducted her Ph.D. dissertation around the use of social media by members of Congress, so she’s spent a lot of time thinking about the way these platforms incentivize certain behavior and elevate specific voices. 

According to Whitney, “We all have access to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but not all voices are actually heard and elevated on those platforms. Which communities are being uplifted and which are being disenfranchised?” 

Along this same vein, all US citizens technically have access to the ballot box. But, according to Whitney, just as social media platforms play a role in elevating and suppressing certain voices, so, too, do our voting methods. 

Choose-one voting suppresses voter voices through vote-splitting—forcing voters to divide their support among similar candidates and thus decreasing their voting power and limiting their voice. 

“Approval voting, on the other hand, is accessible, easily implemented at low cost, and would directly benefit not just voters across different parties and communities, but it would also benefit candidates to be who they are,” Whitney said. “They don’t have to fit into specific boxes or the two party system—a system that is perpetuated by plurality voting.”

Both social media platforms and voting methods are tools that can be used either to effect positive or negative change, Whitney noted.

“Fixing structural inequities takes a long time. We can’t fix racism in one fell swoop, but we can fix the tools we use to better serve communities.”

Before sinking her teeth into the math and theory behind voting methods, Whitney spent her time earning her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California (USC) where she specializes in American Politics and Research Methods. 

Through her research, she analyzed Congressional communication and how social media platforms incentivize certain types of speech. 

Whitney’s analyses revealed that members’ race and gender identity often determined whether they were able to engage in “riskier” communication strategies on Twitter, including emotive, negative communication. 

Similarly, our choose-one voting method often disincentives certain voters from taking “risks” or fully expressing their views on their ballot.

Even before her time at USC, Whitney was no stranger to the ugly side of politics. As a recent college graduate at UC Irvine, she served as the campaign manager for a local district assembly race. 

Her campaign was successful, and when her candidate was elected, she became a key staff member for the assembly member. While she enjoyed her work at first, she soon became disillusioned with the political process.

“I saw how the whole process mainly revolved around the self-serving interests of politicians,” Whitney said. “Political actors are strategically motivated to keep seeking reelection to keep a hold on their power, and they often lose sight of the needs of the public.”

Realizing she needed to get out of politics, yet still having a desire to learn, she decided to pursue graduate school. 

She found all the time and effort put into learning new, high level technical skills to be an incredibly rewarding aspect of her graduate career.

“Learning computational methods and  developing my coding skills over time has been a high point,” Whitney said. 

“It’s led to fruitful collaboration with professors and grad students across the US. And conducting my research through the lens of computational methods is exciting because it makes my research process more efficient.” 

After years spent in academia, Whitney is excited to bring her expertise to the world of voting method reform advocacy with CES. 

“I’m hoping by implementing a standardized process of inquiry at CES, I can help shed light on how we can best promote voting methods reform that is meaningful for citizens.”

Whitney says the fact that her research here at CES will have a real-world impact is a particularly attractive aspect of her new position. She’s also excited to be “working for the people rather than politicians.”

When Whitney isn’t digging deep into a dataset, she can often be found hanging out with her partner and their two dogs—Kenneth (a pug) and Steven (a Scottish terrier). She also loves to read. Her favorite book is The Godfather, and she recently devoured Circe by Madeline Miller and Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. 

Whitney has a touch of wanderlust and is a frequent traveler. Some of her favorite places to visit are Scotland, Costa Rica, France, Hawaii, and New York. 

We are beyond thrilled to have Whitney as part of our team. We can’t wait to see her flex her research methods muscles and gather the data we need to bring better elections to voters across the country. Welcome to the team, Whitney!