June 2019

State of Democracy

Analyzing The Success Of Reforms Nationwide

This “State of Democracy” white paper provides a landscape analysis of five key structural political reforms.

Our analysis includes how the reforms work, where and to what extent they exist, when they were enacted, and the financial costs and electoral results of recent legislative and ballot campaigns. We graded each state based on how many of the five key reforms have been passed and implemented. Points were awarded based on how advanced the reforms are in each state.

Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting is an alternative voting system that gives voters more voice, choice, and power in the electoral process. Voters rank candidates on their ballots in order of preference and if no candidate receives majority support of first place votes an “instant runoff” is used. In each runoff, ballots cast for the last place candidate are reassigned to the voter’s second ranked candidate on the ballot until one candidate earns 50% of the vote.

Municipalities around the country have instituted Ranked Choice Voting for elections; this past year Maine became the first state to use Ranked Choice Voting for state elections. They will begin using Ranked Choice Voting for the presidential primaries in 2020.

Automatic Voter Registration

In just the last three years, seventeen states have adopted policies that automatically register citizens to vote when they engage with a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or other participating state agencies. Then, either in person or by mail, voters are then given the choice to opt out and granted an opportunity to join a political party if they choose.

Making it easier for voters to register to vote can increase participation in the electoral process. Among the first five states ― Alaska, California, Georgia, Oregon, and Vermont ― to report Automatic Voter Registration data, voter registration rolls expanded by 11% between 2014 and 2018; in states without automatic voter registration or same day registration, rolls only expanded by 3% over the same period.

Vote at Home

For many people, voting in person at a poll location on a single Tuesday in November raises the barrier to participate in the democratic process. Voting by mail is an alternative offered by most states and has been shown to increase voter participation and enhance election security.

In 2020, four states will automatically mail ballots to every registered voter weeks ahead of election day; in two others, counties have the option to mail ballots to voters, with nearly all choosing to do so in 2020.  Voters are then able to vote at their convenience and return their ballot by mail or at an in-person drop box. Each of the three states to use fully mailed ballots in 2018 significantly outperformed the rest of the country in voter turnout.

Open Primaries

Either because of self-sorting of the electorate or partisan gerrymandering, most general election seats are not competitive at the state or federal level. In uncompetitive seats, party primaries often decide who our elected representatives will be. However, these primary elections are fully open to all voters in only 16 states. Open primaries increase participation and encourage candidates to appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate, including political independents and voters from the other political party.

The rules dictating who can and cannot participate in primary elections are dictated by legislative statute, but in some cases, party rules take precedence over state law.

Redistricting Reform

Redistricting reform seeks to end the pernicious practice of gerrymandering in which state legislatures draw electoral maps for partisan advantage, creating safe seats for whatever party is in power, denying the rest of the electorate a representative and accountable government.

Gerrymandering has been around for a long time, but it has gotten worse with the advent of more granular voter data and more advanced software programs, which allow maps to be manipulated with scientific precision. Partisan gerrymandering occurs when leaders of the majority party in the state legislature attempt to “crack” (spread) or “pack” voters of the minority party into districts to dilute and minimize their voting power.

Other research