A Message from Policy Lab Directors,
Professor Zachary Courser and Professor Eric Helland


Professor Zachary Courser and Professor Eric Helland
Professor Zachary Courser and Professor Eric Helland

Dear Policy Lab alumni, friends, and supporters:

Welcome to the second edition of the Policy Lab e-newsletter! We are thrilled to be back on campus for another stimulating year of national policy research and experiential student learning.

The year ahead promises to be exciting for many reasons. As we approach the midterm elections in November, our ongoing research with the American Enterprise Institute on the relationship between vote access and turnout remains critically important. Policy Lab students over the past two years have meaningfully contributed to our understanding of this issue, including constructing a reliable voter turnout statistic, creating a vote access scorecard, and recently have begun analyzing individual counties to help isolate access measures and understand their impact on turnout. We are pleased to have been invited to present a paper on this research at the upcoming APPAM conference in Washington, D.C. in November.

We have also been hard at work to introduce new programming to the Policy Lab to help raise our profile on campus and among research partners. We will soon be launching a new Fellowship in Policy Analysis for outstanding public policy students conducting significant research on an important policy problem. Fellows will be awarded a $2,000 stipend and will be supported to turn their research into a publication that can be presented at conferences and disseminated through professional channels. We are also in the process of creating a new Policy Lab Academic Advisory Committee to guide our research agenda, bring in new areas of expertise, and support Policy Lab classroom pedagogy.

This month’s newsletter features highlights from our Policy Lab student research in the spring 2022 semester; research updates and other exciting faculty news; a conversation with Policy Lab alum, Sam Horowitz; new student job opportunitiesa report from Policy Lab student, Anika Kimme, on her summer working at Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab; ways to give back to the Policy Lab by making a donation to our work this year; and more.

We are immensely proud of our Policy Lab program which remains one of the only research programs in the country that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to contribute to professional research with Washington, D.C.-based partners on real-world policy problems.

As we approach the end of the year, we hope you will consider making a donation to the Policy Lab to support our work. Details on how to donate to the Policy Lab are included at the end of this newsletter, and you should also feel free to reach out to our Assistant Director, Liz Biskar, at lbiskar@cmc.edu.

Thank you for your support,
Zach Courser and Eric Helland, Co-Directors, Policy Lab

About the Policy Lab

The Policy Lab gives students a firm foundation in how public policy is made in the United States, to prepare them for work in legislatures, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, or to pursue graduate education. Our program combines political science, economics, and practical application through a diverse array of research projects. Working closely with our faculty, staff and external partners, Policy Lab students learn and apply essential skills for policy writing, analysis and creation, and contribute to professional policy research. To learn more about our recent projects, visit our website here: https://policylab.cmc.edu/

Policy Lab Spring 2022 Classroom Highlights

Policy Lab student presentations, spring 2022

Our spring 2022 Policy Lab capstone class (Econ / Gov 100) continued to work on the Voter Turnout and Access project in partnership with Kevin Kosar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Students in the spring 2022 class collected administrative data from 13 counties for the 2012, 2016, and 2020 elections to analyze patterns of voter turnout and their relationship to certain voter demographic variables (e.g., race, gender, income, etc.). This built on the fall 2021 semester’s work to construct a reliable county-level voter turnout statistic using population data from the US Census’ American Community Survey and voter turnout data from state and county elections offices. Students met with our partner at AEI to discuss their findings and learn how their research informs the ongoing efforts to advance election reform in Washington.

In addition to the class project with AEI, students undertook independent policy analysis on a topic of their choosing and produced a final policy report. Topics in the spring 2022 semester included: expanding federal Pell Grant eligibility, improving US election material translations for people with limited English proficiency, rapid re-housing programs for families experiencing homelessness, among others.

The spring 2022 class had a total enrollment of 12 students, including seven students from CMC, three students from Pomona College, and two students from Pitzer College. The spring 2022 Lab Managers were Anika Kimme (CMC ’23) and Augusta Lewis (CMC ’23).

News Round-Up

Pork Barrel Politics in Comparative Perspective

Tuesday, September 13 | 11 AM ET

Johns Hopkins Panel Discussion of Pork Barrel Politics in Comparative Perspective

Co-Director Zach Courser gave a presentation on the reintroduction of congressionally directed spending at a panel discussion hosted at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University on September 13. The institute promotes multi-disciplinary inquiry to understand democratic decline and resilience. Moderated by Beatriz Rey, SNF Agora Visiting Fellow and a former American Political Science Association (APSA) Congressional Fellow, the discussion compared the Brazilian and American versions of legislatively-directed spending and its effects on legislative politics and executive-congressional relations. The talk can be viewed here.

Carlos Pereira, a professor at the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration (EBAPE), described how earmark spending in Brazil used to be a collaborative, party-centered process that included the executive and legislative and increased the welfare of districts and cities that received support. It also helped build and maintain coalitions in the legislature. It has since devolved into a bifurcated system of legislative pluralities spending on their own priorities and a very nontransparent presidential fund for earmark-like spending. Courser explained how earmarking was reintroduced in the US Congress during the fiscal year 2022 federal budget, in a new and reformed process that required evidence of community needs, limits on the number of requests, protections against conflicts of interest, and a cap on spending. He argued that congressionally directed spending is an essential Article I power Congress should wield to identify and deliver district and state spending needs. Without it the executive branch will spend on their behalf, forcing congressmembers to make requests in a process that is more partisan, less transparent, and less responsive to local needs.

Co-Director Courser joins the Bipartisan Policy Center as a Fellow

Starting October 1, Zach Courser will join the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, DC based think tank, as a fellow working on policy related to congressionally directed spending. Prof. Courser has been a leading expert on the reintroduction of congressionally-direct spending, having co-authored a report recommending their reintroduction for the American Enterprise Institute in early 2021 based on research performed by our Policy Lab students and faculty. The Policy Lab co-sponsored a DC conference with the American Enterprise Institute and Bipartisan Policy Center last December analyzing the reintroduction of earmarking and making policy recommendations for the future. The Bipartisan Policy Center was the first partner of the Policy Lab back in 2016, collaborating on federal healthcare issues such as reforming Medicare and Medicaid to better care for people eligible for both programs, telemedicine regulation, and then-proposed work requirements for Medicaid.

Courser and Helland to Present at the annual Association for Public Policy Analysis
and Management conference in Washington, DC

Based on ongoing research on state-level vote access policy which the Policy Lab has been undertaking with the American Enterprise Institute, the Policy Lab Directors are presenting a co-authored paper this November on the effects of state vote by mail (VBM) programs on turnout. Their study examines a unique quasi-experiment in which several western states implemented staggered rollouts of county level universal VBM programs. Building on previous research on VBM’s effects on turnout, Courser and Helland examine “snapshot” administrative voting records for 2012, 2016 and 2020 for California, Utah and Montana. The study will inform policy discussions in state legislatures and among strategists that VBM increases turnout without advantaging any party, and should be considered as a means of broadening voter access to various subsets of voters.

A Report from Policy Lab Student, Anika Kimme,
On Her Summer Research Position at Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab

Anika was one of two CMC students selected to work with Professor Jim Greiner at Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice (A2J) Lab this summer. The A2J Lab aims to transform the legal system through creating randomized control trials and using these trials to find ways to help individuals and families navigate the justice system.

On her experience with the A2J Lab, Anika writes:

“My main role as a research assistant was doing research related to the randomized trials going on at the lab. My first summer task was researching the recent equity initiatives at the United States Department of Labor (DOL). The A2J currently receives data from the Kansas DOL for one of their projects and they asked the A2J Lab for information on the current equity initiatives at the US DOL. My supervisor, Professor Jim Greiner, asked me to look into the equity action plan at the US DOL so we could send the Kansas DOL a memo helping them find opportunities to expand their data system. I wrote a legal memo using my research to provide information to the KDOL. The first section of the memo summarized the DOL’s equity action plan and the second section discussed different opportunities for states to apply for grants related to data collection.

However, my main project over the summer was to write a legal memo on decision-making. The A2J Lab is currently working on a study on the impact of placing social workers on legal teams and, as part of the study, attorneys must choose whether or not a social worker should be placed on a case. However, since the study is a randomized control trial, some attorneys’ choices were rejected. My research focused on literature that reviewed how losing choice can impact a person’s task performance with the goal of learning how an attorney might react if their choice was rejected. My final memo had three sections. First, I focused on the theories behind the importance of choice and autonomy. I reviewed literature from psychology and neuroscience that attempted to explain why humans value choice. Second, I summarized the body of literature on the connection between choice and task performance when the choice and task are related, with focus on when a choice requires an intellectual decision. Third, I looked at the broader scope of literature about task and choice including studies with a choice unrelated to a task and experiments that took place in an educational setting. This memo was my largest project over the summer and required me to spend a large amount of time reading studies from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and philosophy.

Finally, I worked on a third project related to a recidivism study at the A2J Lab. Using a previously formulated codebook, I looked at pdfs from legal cases and extracted important information to put into excel sheets. This allowed the A2J Lab to analyze the data in R which would not have been possible in pdf form. The project required gaining an understanding of how legal documents work and the terminology used in these documents. This coding will be used in a forthcoming study from the A2J Lab related to the impact of record clearing.

My time working different roles at the Policy Lab helped prepare me for my position over the summer. The policy memos I wrote for the Policy Lab class as well as the literature review I worked on during my role as a research assistant both gave me the necessary skills for the legal memos and literature review I did for the A2J Lab.”

New Research from the Policy Lab

  • Read our new Research Brief, “An Analysis of State-Level Vote Access Changes & Turnout in the 2020 Election” authored by Policy Lab Co-Director Zach Courser. This brief describes the effects of state-level vote access changes on turnout in the 2020 election and finds that increased access to voting was associated with an increase in county-level turnout in the 2020 election. This research additionally found there was not a significant relationship between increases in voter turnout and the partisanship of a county.
  • Policy Lab Co-Director Eric Helland was selected as a Haynes Foundation Faculty Fellow for the 2022-2023 academic year and received a $16,000 grant to support his research on Debt Collection Cases in Los Angeles County Courts. This research will evaluate the likelihood of default judgements in debt collection cases – whereby consumers do not contest the debt, appear in court, or respond to summons – in LA County Courts by consumer race/ethnicity and income. There is a consensus among judges who deal with debt collection that the burden of the shift to third party collection (i.e., companies which purchase consumer debt for the purpose of litigation) has fallen disproportionately on lower-income and communities of color. This research will inform public policy by creating a reliable dataset and understanding of which populations are impacted by default judgement debt collection cases in LA County.
  • Policy Lab Assistant Director Liz Biskar produced a research report in partnership with the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison summarizing state DOT perspectives, needs, and best practices related to transportation equity based on an analysis of state DOT responses to the USDOT’s request for information on Transportation Equity Data. The report offers an initial assessment of state DOT progress towards transportation equity goals using a rough maturity index. Findings suggest some overlap on baseline demographic variables including race, ethnicity, income, and limited English proficiency used in state DOT equity analyses. Community engagement was also found to be an important equity principle. This report was highlighted in SSTI’s annual Community of Practice meeting in August 2022 with CEOs of state DOTs and included in a Briefing Book shared with all meeting attendees. Student research support was provided by Anika Kimme (‘23), Augusta Lewis (‘23), Livia Hughson (‘25), and Jemma Nazarali (‘25).

Policy Lab Summer 2022 Highlights

A total of six students were selected to join the Policy Lab Summer Research Associates program in summer 2022. We received a record level of student interest in the program, with a total of 12 applications received. Our Summer Research Associates contributed to three different research projects including: the Vote Access and Turnout project in partnership with American Enterprise Institute (AEI); the State DOT Transportation Equity project with the State Smart Transportation Initiative; and research looking into multi-district litigation cases against pharmaceutical opioid companies with the RAND Corporation.

Our Summer Fellows were: Allegra Abbruzzese (Pitzer ‘23), Livia Hughson (‘25), Jemma Nazarali (‘25), Benjamin Smith (‘23), and Yaqin Zhang (‘23). The Lab Manager overseeing student work was Augusta Lewis (‘23).

A Conversation with Policy Lab Alum, Sam Horowitz

Sam Horowitz
Policy Lab alum, Sam Horowitz

Sam completed the Policy Lab course in Spring 2018 and was later hired as a Lab Manager to oversee the Fall 2018 class. While at the Policy Lab, Sam worked on a range of research projects including a project to explore federal and state regulations for telehealth licensing for the Bipartisan Policy Center; and an analysis of local refugee and migrant assistance programs for the Brookings Institution.

What have you been up to since graduating from CMC?

I recently received my Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment, where I specialized in Environmental Policy Analysis. I learned a lot while there, both inside the classroom and out. One thing I really appreciated about the program is how multidisciplinary it was: I was able to take courses on urban planning, climate change economics, environmental law, and policy design, just to name a few.

While at Yale, I also gained hands-on experience in my field. I worked with the Yale Office of Sustainability to put together the University’s first ever resilience plan, interned with a nonprofit where I helped environmental justice groups across the country prepare for climate impacts, supported Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry, and took several clinic courses where I worked with teams of Yale students to develop innovative policy proposals relating to decarbonization and resiliency. I also interned at the White House Council on Environmental Quality for about nine months. It was an incredible honor and an extremely fulfilling experience. Before graduate school, I was helping out on the Biden-Harris campaign’s Climate, Energy, and Environment Policy Advisory Committee.

Did any of the skills you acquired in the Policy Lab help you later on in either your Master’s program or other jobs you’ve held?

Policy Lab was an incredibly formative experience for me and it solidified my interest in the policy field. It taught me new ways of thinking and writing, both of which have helped me immensely in graduate school and in my work. One of the most important things I learned in Policy Lab was the art of the policy memo. Being able to write clearly, succinctly, and persuasively (and often on very short timelines) is such an important skill in the policy world. It’s something that I’ve continued to work on and make use of, from the classroom to the White House. I remember one time on the Biden-Harris campaign when I was asked to put together a lit review and policy memo on a subject that I had no background in. The catch? It had to be done in about two days. It was hard work, but I was able to put it together thanks to the skills I gained from Policy Lab.

I also still use the Eightfold Path framework when setting out on new policy projects. I think it’s taught me a few useful things: that clearly defining the problem is the most important step in the policy process, that every policy decision, even your preferred one, will probably have tradeoffs, and that it is critical to follow data, science, and other forms of evidence when proposing policies.

Is there anything else you want to share with students interested in getting involved with the Policy Lab?

For all the hard skills I’ve gained from Policy Lab, the relationships have been just as important. My professors were incredibly supportive and helped put me on the path to where I am today, and I am still in touch with them. I was also able to build relationships with some incredible peers, both as a student and as a Lab Manager. Looking at where they are and what they’re up to shows that Policy Lab is truly an incubator for young people interested in making big impacts. I am grateful for my experience there and can’t wait for the day when I can bring a project to Policy Lab!

Come work with the Policy Lab!

We are now accepting applications for Research Assistants to work with us during the fall 2022 semester. We will hire up to five students to work on projects with the American Enterprise Institute analyzing state voter access and turnout in the 2020 election; the RAND Corporation on multi-district litigation against pharmaceutical companies; and the State Smart Transportation Initiative on the history and challenges of urban freeway removal.

Policy Lab Research Assistants will work individually and in groups on qualitative and quantitative policy research, analysis, visualizations, and memo writing. Students will be expected to regularly meet and coordinate with faculty and staff supervisors, and occasionally interface with project partners via phone, email, and video conference. Research Assistants are expected to work between 8-10 hours per week and earn an hourly rate of $16 per hour. Students qualifying for work study are encouraged to apply.

To apply, please submit a resume and cover letter through the job listing on Handshake. Applicants should highlight research or policy writing experience; courses taken in statistics, political methodology, or econometrics; or a proficiency with statistical analysis and visualization tools such as R, Stata, Tableau, or Python. Research Assistant positions are open to first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. It is not a requirement that Research Assistants be Public Policy majors, nor is it a requirement that Research Assistants have taken the Policy Lab course.

If you have any questions about the position, please reach out to Liz Biskar at lbiskar@cmc.edu. Thank you!

Planning your end-of-year donations? Consider supporting the Policy Lab!

The Policy Lab is donor-funded, and relies on support from trusts and foundations, individuals, alumni, corporate sponsors, and others to keep our work going. Our unique funding model allows us to put students at the center of all policy research, and ensure they receive the hands-on, evidence-based policy research and memo-writing experience that will help them succeed after graduation. It also gives us the flexibility to pursue research partnerships with well-respected think tanks and policy professionals that will enhance the student experience.

Please consider making a donation to Policy Lab today! Online donations can be made on the CMC Giving Page. Please select “Other” in the Designation field and enter “Policy Lab” in the comments. Thank you!

CMC Policy Lab Fall 2022 Newsletter