The public has a new opportunity to test their hypotheses about how to strengthen U.S. democracy — all while potentially winning thousands of dollars. Stanford University and collaborators are inviting submissions to the crowdsourced Strengthening Democracy Challenge.

Submissions must be designed to make a positive impact on at least one of the following: 1) anti-democratic attitudes, 2) support for partisan violence, and 3) negative feelings toward supporters of the political party that is not their own. Submissions can take the form of audio clips, video shorts, reading material, games, activities, and more. Using terminology from the contest, this experiment tries to find short, scalable solutions to address three threats to democracy: “anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and/or partisan animosity.”     

The contest’s advisory board will choose 25 ideas for experimental testing. Roughly 1,000 participants (500 Democrats and 500 Republicans) will be recruited to test each of the ideas.

During an interview, Jan Gerrit Voelkel, a grad student at Stanford and one of the members of the contest’s research team, explained the benefits of using this “mega experiment” compared to traditional social science methods. This method can dramatically speed up discovery of promising ideas and increases the diversity of ideas explored, without any researcher’s personal stake in the results. Crowdsourcing also brings the element of surprise and could result in discovering solutions in completely unforeseen directions.

Organizers of the Strengthening Democracy Challenge are a multidisciplinary team of social scientists from Stanford University, MIT, Northwestern University, and Columbia University. The advisory board consists of researchers and practitioners in the field. The contest is supported by the Civic Health Project and the Fetzer Institute.

As explained in the contest’s handbook, the organizers have opted to measure the three different outcomes by asking the participants a series of questions after experiencing the intervention of up to eight minutes (listening, writing, watching, etc.). Participants will also play a behavioral science decision-making game as one of the measures of partisan animosity. In order to determine winners, statistical tests will determine which intervention worked best across the 1,000 participants per intervention, without any focus on particular subgroups.

Voelkel said once the winners are determined, the researchers will continue to analyze the results, exploring topics such as whether certain interventions affect subgroups differently. Participants will be asked additional questions that will not affect the contest results, such as whether the interventions can effectively reduce partisan political attitudes or the tendency to interpret information through a partisan lens. The researchers will also investigate the answers to these questions.

Submissions are due on the contest website by October 1, 2021. The website has information including a handbook, example submissions, and the submission form. Voelkel said that potential entrants should email questions to the contact address on the site if they still have questions. A given individual is allowed to submit as many interventions as they want. The organizers would like to test ideas from people across the political spectrum, and they are trying to reach groups with members of many political perspectives.

All 25 submissions chosen will be made publicly available, along with the (anonymized) data about the participant testers and their outcomes. After the Challenge is over and the winners are notified (ideally in December 2021), a conference will recognize winners and all those involved in organizing the Challenge.

Assuming a sufficient number of viable entries, teams will be able to divide $15,000 in prizes for each of the three outcomes being measured. Special awards will be given to grad students and practitioners (those not conducting research for an academic institution) whose interventions most reduce any of the three outcomes, and there will be awards for novelty of interventions. The authors of all 25 interventions will be honored at the conference, and their names will be included in the primary publication resulting from the challenge.

Ultimately, the organizers hope that this contest can find scalable interventions that help protect America’s democracy. They encourage as many people as possible to submit an entry.

Jen Auer is a program evaluation specialist with a PhD in public policy. Her research focuses on entrepreneurship, small business and community and economic development. She is interested in identifying social and political areas of compromise to promote a functioning democracy. Jen has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).