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What State Democracies Mean To Young People

The state capitol building of Maine, the state that ranked highest for its level of democracy in a new report from the Center for American Progress.

CREDIT: Flickr user J. Stephen Conn.

Federal laws provide the overarching protections that many young people are familiar with.  Your right to free speech and the ability to practice any religion you choose are federal rights that the United States constitution protects.  These rights cannot be abridged by any other political entities and they supersede state and local laws.  State laws however, work to determine the extent to which individuals can experience the benefits of a democratic society.  Most laws that affect your day-to-day life are created and enforced on a state level.  Consider the minimum wage, for example: states, not the federal government, determine how much employers must pay their workers.

One area in which this is particularly true is in democracy—too often, the ability of citizens to cast a vote and have it counted, be truly represented in government, and know who is influencing electoral outcomes and governmental policies is determined by where that person lives. To that end, this week the Center for American Progress released a new report on the Health of State Democracies to address issues such as voting laws, campaign finance, redistricting, and fair courts as a package of fundamental questions to be answered if progressives expect victories.  The report analyzes 22 selected factors broken up into three categories: accessibility of the ballot, representation in state government, and influence in the political system.  It then grades and ranks each state (plus the District of Columbia) based on each category.  By examining these issues in conjunction with one another as opposed to in silos, the report develops policy prescriptions that evaluate the diverse criteria needed for a healthy democratic system.

Based on the criteria, the top five states consist of Maine, Montana, Colorado, the District of Columbia, and Vermont.  The bottom five include Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Alabama.  Interestingly, two cities in the top five states correspond with the top 10 cities that Millennials are moving to for employment opportunities.  Whether young people are aware of it or not, their migration choices are in line with some of the better-performing states based on the reports’ findings.

The report offers a detailed analysis spanning a large range of issues.  The accessibility of the ballot section evaluated, amongst other things, the availability of pre-registration and online registration, in-person early voting, voter ID laws, and voting wait time in 2008 and 2012.  Representation in state government evaluated felony disenfranchisement laws, congressional and state districting distortion, ballot initiative laws, and women and people of color elected to office.  Lastly, the influence in the political system section measured: availability of public campaign financing, campaign contribution limits, and judicial recusal laws, among other factors.

These issues significantly affect young people and voter participation.  Currently, 20 states have passed online voter registration.  Arizona, a state that has online voter registration saw an increase from 28.7 percent to 52.7 percent for voter registration among 18- to 24-year-olds after the implementation of online registration.  This falls in line with studies conducted evaluating the habits of Millennials.  Millennials use the internet at a significantly higher rate than previous generations.  Even more so, Millennials are using the internet via smart phones.  Therefore, online registration would encourage more Millennials to participate in civic engagement, and registering to vote is the first step.

The analysis also evaluated states based on the diversity of their elected officials, focusing particularly on women and people of color in office.  Diversity in office impacts Millennials beyond the obvious point that elected officials make decisions that affects everyone’s day-to-day lives.  With more than one-third of Millennials identifying as non-white and 20 percent identifying as an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history. States that fall toward the top of the healthy democracy list with more women and people of color elected to office, therefore, are more representative of the Millennial generation than those toward the bottom.

The authors of the report also evaluated states based on the availability of public campaign financing.  States with more robust programs that provide public funds to political parties or individual candidates were ranked higher than states with less comprehensive programs. This issue has the potential for a tremendous impact on Millennials—especially those considering running for office.  Millennials are the most educated generation in American history and with that they have raked in staggering amounts of student loan debt.  This has made it difficult for them to save, buy cars, or buy property.

More relevant to democracy, the student loan debt burden also makes it more difficult for Millennials to finance their own political campaigns.  Public campaign financing, however, can step in and boost an individual’s viability.  More so than previous generations, Millennials in general will lack access to traditional networks of political power, especially minority and low-income candidates.  Monies associated with political power usually flow to establishment candidates, not challengers or newcomers—public campaign financing has the ability to place Millennials on a more even playing field when it comes to running for office.

Overall, the report is detailed and meticulous in its efforts to highlight where states do well and point out where they can improve.  After analysis on the specific categories and subsections, the final section of the report provides policy recommendations based on each category and the subsections within it.  All of the issues discussed in the report affect Millennials’ day-to-day lives.  The report is a great start to answering the question: what makes a healthy state democracy for Millennials?

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