Recent Writings

Benjamin Schneer, Tobias Resch MBDC. The Popular Origins of Legislative Jurisdictions: Petitions and Standing Committee Formation in Colonial Virginia and the Early U.S. House. Journal of Politics, forthcoming. Working Paper. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Committee formation in early American legislatures happened when those assemblies were inundated with petitions, a relationship unexamined in institutional political science. We develop a model where a floor creates committees to respond to topic-specific petitions, predicting committee creation when petitions (1) are topically specific, (2) are spread across constituencies, and (3) have complex subject matter, and predicting committee appointments from petition-heavy constituencies. Analysis of case studies and with two original datasets – petitions sent to the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1766 to 1769, and over 100,000 petitions sent to Congress and recorded in the House Journal (1789-1875) – shows petitions, their complexity and their geographic dispersion predict committee creation. Our theoretical argument embeds asset specificity in legislative institutions, and helps reinterpret the entropy of political agendas and the origins of standing committees in American legislatures.
Blackhawk M, Carpenter D, Resch T, Schneer B. Congressional Representation by Petition: Assessing the Voices of the Voteless in a Comprehensive New Database, 1789–1949. Legislative Studies Quarterly. 2020. Publisher's VersionAbstract
For much of American political history, the electoral franchise was restricted to only a portion of the population. By contrast, the right to petition was considered universal and enshrined in the First Amendment, giving voice to the voteless. Petitioning thus served as a fundamental mechanism of representation. Still, fundamental questions remain: How was petitioning used, how did Congress respond to petitions, and did the petition allow for partial representation of the marginalized and unenfranchised? We address these questions by analyzing the Congressional Petitions Database (CPD), an original endeavor tracking virtually every petition introduced to Congress from 1789 to 1949. Our analyses document how (1) two important groups of unenfranchised constituents—Native Americans and women—petitioned regularly and (2) Congress's initial treatment of Natives' and women's petitions was similar to that of all others, thus offering systematic evidence highlighting the petition's role as a mechanism for representation among otherwise unenfranchised groups.
Carpenter D. Authoritarian Electoral College Underpopulation: Historical Reflections and a Possible Countermove under Article I, Section 5. 2020.Abstract

The possibility of a contested presidential election in November 2020 to January 2021 is real, and one of the most common scenarios (discussed in a widely shared Newsweek article and by the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig) involves states refusing to certify or report slates of electors to the Electoral College with the result (and, in all likelihood, the intent) of throwing the election to the House of Representatives. I call this scenario authoritarian Electoral College underpopulation.

In this memorandum, I advance two points. First, neither Article II nor the Twelfth Amendment was designed for such scenarios, being rather intended for situations where multi-candidate or multiparty dynamics lead to no single candidate gaining a majority in the College (as occurred in 1800 and in 1824). Absent a multi-candidate scenario where no third candidate materializes, or absent an Electoral College tie, no contingent vote of the House should occur, because states should faithfully report their Electoral College slates in keeping with republican principles, that is, state popular majorities.

Second, I then argue that the House of Representatives could respond by reconfiguring its members using its powers under Article I, Section 5, with a combination of selective delegation seating or selective delegation reconstitution, to produce in the House contingent vote the result that would have been produced by a legitimate (republican) Electoral College vote and/or the national popular vote.

While Article I, Section 5 powers are subject to abuse, they could be used under extreme circumstances to rectify unrepublican actions among state authorities. Indeed, some such Section 5 powers have been used before in a similar corrective manner, to counter unrepublican actions at the state level. While reform of our Electoral College institutions is a more desirable “first-best” aspiration, this argument points to ways of protecting the republican principle in near-term presidential elections.

More Publications

Projects & Topics


The FDA Project

A large-scale theoretical, historical and statistical analysis of pharmaceutical regulation in the U.S. as it is carried out by the FDA.