New report on the ‘Health of State Democracies’


The Center for American Progress Action Fund released a report today rating the “Health of State Democracies.” Explore the report and data on the interactive: Here are summary reports. The Health of State Democracies, and Liberty and Justice for All? A 50-State Look at the Health of State Democracies.

The Washington Post’s Niraj Chokshi reports, Is this cold, rural state home to the nation’s healthiest democracy?:

VotersOne of the nation’s whitest, coldest and most rural states may have a new superlative to add to the list: most democratic.

After taking 22 factors into account, Maine’s democracy ranks healthiest in the nation in a new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy wing of the liberal Center for American Progress. Alabama’s was weakest, though even top-ranking Maine was far from perfect.

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Measuring democracy is, of course, subjective — to some, requiring identification to vote makes democracies stronger, while others view it as a barrier, a solution in search of a problem. But if broad access to voting, equal representation in state government and a limited concentration of influence over the political system is your idea of a healthy democracy, then Maine is the state for you.

The effort to grade the states began in January in order to unify work already being done in silos on a number of issues: “These are a package of fundamental questions that we have to start answering together,” says Harmon.

After giving equal weight to each of the 22 factors, several findings emerged:

  • There was dramatic variation in state democracies:

In one state, a citizen may be able to vote three weekends before Election Day; in another, she may be forced to wait in a long line on Election Day to cast a ballot. In one state, a citizen may have elected officials who are nearly representative of the state’s demographic makeup; in another, some groups may be woefully underrepresented.

  • States where ballot access was strongest also have the highest voter turnout.
  • Ballot access was poor in the states that once had to get federal approval to change voting laws — a Voting Rights Act requirement eliminated by the Supreme Court in 2013.
  • No state was perfect and those that excel in one category may often fare poorly in another.
  • State governments are hardly representative of their residents.
  • Few states have strong laws regulating influence over the political system.

Here’s a look at how states fared along each of the three broad categories measured in the report:

Accessibility of the Ballot

Screenshot from 2015-07-07 13:01:59

Oregon ranked highest when it came to ballot accessibility thanks to efforts like its “new motor voter” law, which went into effect  this year and is expected to register several hundred thousand new voters. That law introduced a subtle  but significant twist on existing motor voter laws: it’s opt-out instead of opt-in. Any resident who provides sufficient proof of voting eligibility to the state’s transportation department is automatically registered to vote.

Oregon and Utah were the only states to receive A grades on ballot accessibility, while a smattering received B’s. States that failed on this measure were mostly  in the South, with Mississippi ranking dead last. [Arizona gets a grade of “F”]

Ten factors went into the assessment of ballot accessibility, including how easy it is for residents to: pre-register at age 16 or 17; register online; maintain registration after moving; and vote early or as an absentee voter. They also considered state voter identification laws, the more restrictive of which have been linked to lower turnout, disproportionately affecting minority and young voters, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Voting wait times were another factor, as were provisional balloting and motor voter laws.

Screenshot from 2015-07-07 13:06:56

Representation in state government

Few states scored well on the representativeness of state government, the authors write. Just three — Montana, Maine and Vermont — and D.C. received A grades on the measure. Kentucky ranked last, followed by Rhode Island and New York.

Screenshot from 2015-07-07 13:09:40

The authors considered five factors in grading representation: felon disenfranchisement; allowing resident-led ballot initiatives; congressional and state legislative district distortion; women’s share of elected offices; and minority share of elected offices.

Almost no states excel on the latter two measures:

There is no state in which women are overrepresented in elective office, and only two — Vermont and Mississippi — in which people of color are represented in the state’s elective offices at or above their share of the population at large.

District distortion can also influence representativeness. And while such distortion is hardly new, many of the most-tortured congressional districts have taken shape in recent years, The Washington Post’s Jeff Guo reported last week.

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Felon disenfranchisement laws, which bar felons from voting, also have severe effects. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five black adults are barred from voting due to such restrictions, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for reform. The group estimates that nearly 5.9 million Americans are barred from voting due to the laws.

Influence in the political system

Restricting influence over the political system is a particularly “weak spot” for states, according to the report’s authors who granted just one state, Connecticut, an A grade on the measure — well, really an A-. Nebraska ranked last, followed by Indiana.

Screenshot from 2015-07-07 13:13:52

Six factors went into calculating limits on influence over the political system: individual campaign contribution limits, availability of public campaign financing, campaign disclosure laws, limits on the revolving door between serving in office and taking on lobbying jobs, openness of legislative data and laws governing when judges must recuse themselves from cases in which they might have a personal stake.

New York and California have the highest limits on individual campaign contributions. In New York, the limit is $60,800 for Democratic candidates and $54,775 for Republican candidates, while California’s individual limit is $54,400, according to the report. Colorado, Delaware and Montana have the lowest limits of $1,100, $1,200, and $1,300 each. A dozen states have no limits whatsoever.

Just 15 states offer public campaign financing, while 37 require some cooling-off period between leaving office and taking a lobbying job.

Table 1 lists the states in ranked order and includes an assigned grade for accessibility of the ballot, representation in state government, and influence in the political system.