Center for American Progress Action

Liberty and Justice for All? The District of Columbia Ranks Fourth in New Report on the Health of State Democracies
Press Release

Liberty and Justice for All? The District of Columbia Ranks Fourth in New Report on the Health of State Democracies

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New report examines 22 factors in measuring democracy in the District of Columbia

Washington, D.C. — The District of Columbia ranks fourth in a new report released today by the Center for American Progress Action Fund that gives each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia an overall rank and examines and assigns grades for the categories of accessibility of the ballot, representation in state government, and influence in the political system. The authors’ analysis reveals that these issues must be addressed in sum, not in silos. “The Health of State Democracies” report gives the District of Columbia an A- in accessibility, an A- in representation, and a D in influence.

It is important to note that while the District of Columbia ranks high overall, its democratic health is extremely weak. This report includes the District of Columbia and compares components of its democracy to that of the 50 states. Based on the factors that are possible to measure, the District of Columbia ranks fourth overall, but the relatively strong performance is largely a product of local measures implemented by the District’s mayors and city councilmembers over the years. Of course, thinking more broadly, the quality of the District’s democracy is deeply undermined by its lack of voting representation in Congress or local budget control. Washington’s citizens—like all citizens—are required to pay federal taxes, serve on federal juries, and fight in national wars, yet a Congress comprised of members elected from other states has final authority over its budget and laws. Congress also has the ability to override the outcomes of the relatively high functioning democratic process the District has set up to try to govern itself.

Each state, including the District of Columbia, has areas for significant improvement, with all states specifically needing to address disproportionate representation—no matter where they finish in the rankings. The report also provides recommendations for improvement for the District, including modernizing voter registration, removing structural barriers to full participation, and mitigating the influence of money in the political system.

The report evaluates the District of Columbia on measures such as voting laws, redistricting outcomes, campaign finance laws, fair courts, and others as vital, inter-connected 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 The District of Columbia than when measured alone.

“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.”

While specific recommendations vary greatly by state, one significant overall finding is 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. Even though 15 states receive a failing grade in accessibility of the ballot—a far higher failure rate than in any other category—this finding suggests that limiting barriers to voting means more people will exercise the right.

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

Visit the interactive website

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Benton Strong at 202.481.8142 or [email protected]