May 2023

State of Reform: An Analysis of the Impact and Progress of Four Political Reforms

Analyzing The Success Of Reforms Nationwide

This “State of Reform” white paper, now in its fourth edition, provides a landscape analysis of four key structural election reforms. 

The report describes how the reforms work, where and to what extent they exist, when they were enacted, and evidence from scholarly research regarding their merits and impact. Additionally, the analysis includes the financial cost and electoral results of recent legislative and ballot campaigns advancing the reforms. We graded each state based on how many of the four key reforms have been passed and implemented. Points were awarded based on how advanced the reforms are in each state.

Nonpartisan Primaries

Due to geographic self-sorting of the electorate and partisan gerrymandering, most state legislative and congressional districts lean so strongly in one party’s favor that general elections are not competitive. As a result, in a supermajority of districts, the dominant, or overwhelmingly favored, party’s primary effectively determines who is elected. However, those who vote in these primary elections are not representative of the electorate as a whole, partially because primaries are fully open to all voters in only 19 states. Nonpartisan and open partisan 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.

Following a voter-approved ballot measure in 2020, Alaska held the first ever top-four nonpartisan primary in 2022. The top four vote getters in each race advanced to the general election during which voters used ranked choice ballots. While nonpartisan primaries are an ideal reform, other states have made recent incremental progress by opening up primaries to more voters. For example, in 2021, the Maine legislature enacted semi-open primaries through a bipartisan effort. This means that Maine independents – who comprise 32% of the state’s electorate – will be able to participate in party primaries beginning in 2024. 

Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) 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 a majority of first choice votes, an “instant runoff” is held. In each runoff round, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and all ballots cast for that candidate are transferred to their supporters’ second choice candidate on their ballots. This process continues until one candidate earns a majority (50% + 1) of the vote. 

In 2022, Alaska became the second state (after Maine) to use RCV statewide, and the first to do so in conjunction with top-four nonpartisan primaries. Municipalities around the country have also instituted RCV for local elections; today, 49 cities or counties use RCV, while another 15 are awaiting implementation in upcoming elections. In fact, in 2022, a record number of municipalities (10) voted on ranked-choice voting ballot questions, and eight approved the use of the voting system.

Vote at Home

For many people, voting in person at a polling 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 it has been shown to increase voter participation and enhance election security.

Currently, there are eight “Full Vote at Home” states (and Washington D.C.) that automatically mail ballots to every registered voter weeks ahead of election day. Voters are then able to vote at their convenience and return their ballot by mail or at an in-person drop box. Another seven states give all voters the option to sign up for a permanent absentee voter list, meaning that with just one sign-up, they can ensure they automatically receive a ballot in the mail prior to each election. In 2022, Washington D.C. adopted a full vote at home system, while Michigan became the most recent state to establish a permanent absentee voter list after voters approved the policy at the ballot box. Massachusetts also made incremental progress on mail voting in 2022 when the legislature passed legislation that allows voters to request an absentee ballot without an excuse.

Redistricting Reform

Redistricting reform seeks to end the pernicious practice of gerrymandering, the process by which state legislatures draw electoral maps for partisan advantage. When one party controls a state government, partisan legislators create as many safe seats as possible for their party by “cracking” (spreading) or “packing” voters of the minority party into districts to dilute and minimize their voting power, thus denying much of the electorate a representative and accountable government. Gerrymandering has been around for generations, but it has gotten worse with the advent of granular voter data and more advanced software, which allow maps to be manipulated with scientific precision. 

The ideal reform to end gerrymandering is for states to establish “independent citizen redistricting commissions” to take redistricting power out of the hands of partisan state legislators. Six states have done so already for congressional redistricting, and studies of these commissions shows that transferring mapmaking power to citizens can increase electoral competition and reduce partisan bias. Colorado and Michigan became the latest states to adopt this reform prior to the most recent round of redistricting as voters in each state approved ballot measures in 2018.


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