Center for American Progress Action

Liberty and Justice for All? A 50-State Look at the Health of State Democracies
Press Release

Liberty and Justice for All? A 50-State Look at the Health of State Democracies

Press Contacts

  • Benton Strong

New report examines 22 factors in measuring how access to democracy is too often determined by ZIP code.

Washington, D.C. — A new report released today by the Center for American Progress Action Fund examines the categories of accessibility of the ballot, representation in state government, and influence in the political system, contending these issues must be addressed in sum, not in silos. While Maine ranks at the top, the “Health of State Democracies” report found that each of the 50 states, no matter where they finish in the rankings, can find areas for significant improvement, with each specifically needing to address disproportionate representation. The report also provides recommendations for improvement, including modernizing voter registration, removing structural barriers to full participation, and mitigating the influence of money in the political system.

The 89-page report evaluates all 50 states and the District of Columbia on measures such as voting laws, redistricting outcomes, campaign finance laws, fair courts, and others as vital, interconnected pieces of a state democracy. There are 22 factors in the three categories, which together paint a much clearer picture of the actual environment within states and localities than when measured alone. At www.healthofstatedemocracies.org, users can explore interactive tools to view details on each state and factor, as well as the suite of recommendations.

“Too often in this country, access to the freedoms and privileges guaranteed under the Constitution are determined by ZIP code,” said Michele Jawando, Vice President of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Whether it is access to voting rights, representation in government, or the outsized influence of money in our political system, the opportunity to interact with and participate in democracy is available to some, but blocked for many. There are, however, many factors that make up a healthy democracy that should be evaluated in sum, not in silos, if solutions are going to have an overall effect.”

Eight of the top 10 states—Maine, Montana, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Vermont, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Maryland—receive a C or lower grade in one of the three categories, underscoring their ability to find areas of improvement. But the two most obvious areas of improvement are ensuring the elected leadership of a state reflects the demographics of that state and the strength of laws related to influence in the political system, where only one state received an A- grade.

While specific recommendations vary greatly by state, other significant findings include that states that rank better on accessibility of the ballot have significantly higher voter turnout, and states previously covered by Voting Rights Act preclearance requirements perform poorly in accessibility of the ballot. This suggests that limiting barriers to voting means more people will exercise the right, even as 15 states receive a failing grade in the category, by far the most of the three categories.

“The suite of issues that make up an effective democracy are both diverse and inextricably interconnected,” said Lauren Harmon, Voting Campaign Director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Solutions range from incremental to sweeping, but none is too small to help improve what is a broken system in many states. We have to ensure that all Americans have full access to their democracy by enacting policies that encourage fairness and engagement.”

Finally, of note in the report’s rankings is that the District of Columbia is listed as the fourth best in the country. That ranking is largely due to the strong local measures implemented by mayors and city councilmembers. Ultimately, however, the quality of the District’s democracy could be considered the nation’s worst because of the unparalleled control of Congress on the city and the lack of federal representation for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Read “The Health of State Democracies” by Lauren Harmon, Charles Posner, Michele L. Jawando, Matt Dhaiti

See state press releases below

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Benton Strong at 202.481.8142 or bstrong@americanprogressaction.org.

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