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A Model for Public Policy: Sharyn O'Halloran
Sharyn O'Halloran

It's hard to imagine how Sharyn O'Halloran, professor of political science and international affairs, gets through an average day. Not only does she teach classes in the political science department and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) -- and turn out award-winning research -- she's also written three books (and counting) -- published numerous papers, given multiple seminars on her work, sits on seven university senate committees and still has time to lend expert advice for shows like Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN. Oh, and she's a mother, too.

Keeping that kind of schedule, says O'Halloran, requires strict prioritizing, which is a fitting approach for a scholar whose work crosses disciplines and defies easy description, but ultimately hinges on the study of political priorities in the U.S. and emerging democracies around the world.

Officially, O'Halloran does research related to the institutional foundations of democracy, using game theory and statistical modeling to investigate policy areas ranging from trade policy to government regulation to elections and democratic transitions.

It's a description that may induce glazed eyes for some, but get the professor talking and two things quickly become clear: She's an engaging speaker who can draw listeners into her world by making complex concepts clear without lessening their pungency, and she's doing work of incredible relevance to the development of public policy, particularly in the United States. Take, for example, her most recent work -- which won the 2005 Decade of Behavior Research Award -- on the impact of racial redistricting.

"We did a lot of research and statistical analysis on trends in minority voting," explains O'Halloran, who collaborated with David Epstein, another political science professor at Columbia. "And we found that there are two ways for minorities to influence the political process. They can build coalitions in communities and elect a particular candidate to office, or they can build coalitions in legislatures. Sometimes both these objectives go hand in hand, and sometimes they don't."

At issue, the professor says, is whether so-called majority-minority voting districts help or hurt the substantive representation -- that is, policy representation -- of minority voters. With a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which, among other things, limited the ways in which districts could be gerrymandered) up for renewal in 2007, the question is imminently relevant.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when white voters rarely cast ballots across color lines, heavily minority districts were necessary, according to O'Halloran. But these days, keeping minorities concentrated in specific zones may actually be a drawback because it ultimately isolates minority candidates who get to the legislative level.

"We found that creating heavily minority districts allowed other districts to elect more conservative candidates. As a result, minority office holders, when they do win an election, are in the worst position to effect change," says O'Halloran. "The issues of interest to their constituents aren't necessarily of interest to any other politician at the table, because their districts don't have many minority voters."

The ideal balance, research showed, is to aim for a concentration of 40 percent to 45 percent in minority districts, with some spread into surrounding districts so candidates in those areas have to diversify their approach in order to get elected.

"It goes against conventional wisdom," the professor acknowledges, "but it's proven to be an important piece of work and has been cited already in the key Supreme Court case on racial redistricting. In fact, the court adopted our language of substantive representation as the basis of their decision."

When she isn't analyzing voter trends, traveling to another country to research trade policies or giving public talks on congressional and executive relations and American politics under a unified Capitol Hill, O'Halloran indulges in another passion: world literature.

"I was a double major as an undergrad -- political science and economics," she says. "But I minored in Spanish literature." Growing up in Southern California and attending the University of California at San Diego gave her ample opportunity to practice her Spanish (she also speaks French and Portuguese) and helped her develop an appreciation for Latin American classics by authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges (although she's also a fan of Jane Austen and George Eliot). After completing her Ph.D. in San Diego, she went on to teach at Stanford University.

"I might not have come to the East Coast if Columbia hadn't created joint positions between SIPA and the Department of Political Science," she says. "That made it the perfect place for me to do basic research in statistical modeling and then find real-world applications in SIPA. I study American political institutions and do a lot of comparative and international relations work as well, so to be able to crossover seamlessly into these areas is very important for me."

O'Halloran is getting ready to publish another book on her research into majority-minority voting and is also preparing a conference volume on the impact of renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She is, admittedly, buried in papers.

"I love the work, but my desk is always messier than I like," she laughs. "I can't seem to find the time to straighten that out."

Published: Jun 7, 2005
Last modified: Jun 07, 2005

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