Laboratories of Democracy

October 21, 2021

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that states are the laboratories of democracy. Since our nation was founded, individual states have tested out all kinds of policies and reforms that the federal government might not have the appetite to take on. Today, with Congress gridlocked and national politics deeply polarized, the real action is in the states.

States are impacting the lives of millions of Americans – for better or for worse – when it comes to some of the biggest issues that affect our lives. If visiting your governor’s mansion or lobbying your state delegate feels less sexy than heading to Washington, consider a few examples of why states are worth your time:

  • Redistricting: Who draws legislative districts where you live? Is it the party that controls your state legislature? An independent commission of experts? Some combination? States can draw districts in ways that give an advantage – often a huge one – to one party over another. In other words, state rules decide, at least in part, who runs Congress.
  • Voting Rules: Can you vote early? Vote by mail? Does your ballot need to arrive at the state elections office by Election Day, or just be postmarked in time? It all depends on your state’s election rules. Those rules play a part in determining who wins elections – and that has a national impact.
  • Elections: Every state has a top election official who reviews all the local vote tallies from across the state and ensures that everything adds up and is accurate. If that person decided to delay certifying an election for some reason, voters could be left waiting for the final word on who won – or worse, denied the final word altogether.
  • Public Health: Do you have to wear a mask indoors? Are state government employees required to be vaccinated? What policies have been mandated for schools, nursing homes, and medical facilities? A lot of people didn’t pay much attention to their state governments before the pandemic, but quickly realized that governors have a lot of power – and can use it in ways that directly affects people’s lives.
  • Medicaid: While Medicaid is a national health insurance program for low-income people, states are responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting. For example, after Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (sometimes known as Obamacare), states had the option of expanding Medicaid to cover more people. As of October 2021, 38 states and the District of Columbia had chosen to expand the program.
  • K-12 Education: States and school boards are primarily responsible for establishing schools, developing curricula for what is taught in them, certifying teachers, and setting standards for enrollment and graduation. And the lion’s share of funding for public education comes from state and local sources.

Want to better understand how your state works? Learn more about your governor and state legislature, then find out how you can get to know them.

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