Welcome to the laboratory of democracy—which happens to be whatever state you’re living in, says the CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“States can look at all these areas—education, transportation, criminal justice—and pioneer policies that may or may not work at the national level,” Tim Storey says in a conversation about the website A Starting Point with actor Chris Evans and actor/producer Mark Kassen. The video-based site, which Evans, Kassen and tech entrepreneur Joe Kiani launched with an accompanying app in 2020, is aimed at creating bipartisan communications between elected officials and voters.
The stuff that really matters to people is happening in state government, with governors and legislatures working together. —NCSL CEO Tim Storey
Storey says the phrase “laboratories of democracy” was coined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932.
“(He was) basically saying, states can pioneer their own policy,” Storey says, pointing to the evolution of marijuana law, starting with legalization by Colorado and Washington state, as an example. “Other states have looked at that to see how it’s going and have followed it.”
Another example: the Affordable Care Act, which was based on a Massachusetts law. California has recently passed major environmental legislation, Storey says, including a measure that outlaws gas-powered vehicles and another that requires the state to get 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2035. And Texas allows the open carry of guns without a permit.
So, what are the areas where states play a greater tole than the federal government?
“My glib answer is, all of them,” Storey says. “Because I would say, the stuff that really matters to people is happening in state government, with governors and legislatures working together.”
Storey says states raise about $2 trillion in taxes, “so they’ve got to make a lot of difficult decisions that people care about,” Storey says. “Are we going to pay teachers more? Are we going to put more highway patrol out on the road?”
Ballot Measures Give Voters More Say
Through ballot measures—130 of which will be decided in 36 states in the midterm elections on Nov. 8—citizens are able to have an even greater say in the laws they will live under, Storey says.
Ballot measures can come directly from the legislature as a referendum, or they can arise as citizen initiatives, which are available in about half the states, he says.
In states such as California, Washington and Colorado, “people can get enough signatures about changing this law or that law,” Storey says, adding that six states have abortion laws on the ballot that went through the citizen initiative process—three of which would add the right to an abortion to the state constitution, while three others would restrict abortion further.
Election processes are on the ballot in some states, including Nevada, which is looking to join Alaska and Maine in using ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates based on preference, Storey says.
“And that’s truly a real change in how we’re governed as a country,” he says. “That’s a pretty radical direction for the country in terms of how we count votes for office.”
Lisa Ryckman is an associate director in NCSL’s Communications Division.