You’re living in a “Laboratory for Democracy.”

September, 2018

1. Did you know there are three states that do all their voting by mail? (Answers to all questions below.)

2. Do you know how vote-by-mail has affected the number of people who vote? Have you heard about any problems with it?

3. Do you know which city in Massachusetts uses Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)? Do you know how well it has worked in other cities and countries? Which state’s voters started RCV by passing an initiative petition?

4. There is one state that has a unicameral legislature, not both a House and Senate. Do you know how it compares to states with bicameral legislatures?

5. Two states award electoral votes for President by Congressional District. Do you know how often both candidates have received at least one electoral vote in those states?

6. Different states fund their public schools differently, and per-pupil expenditures vary widely from state to state. Have you ever seen an analysis of the effect of different funding systems and levels on student performance?

In the first part of the last century, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, from Massachusetts, advocated that the states become “laboratories of democracy.” States could, he suggested, experiment with different laws, procedures and policies so that the rest of us could see what worked (and what didn’t) before committing the whole country.

Many states have followed Brandeis’ advice and hundreds of useful “experiments” have been tried over the years. But only a small number have received proper evaluation. Most go ignored.

Two successful experiments come to mind. “One Day, One Trial,” and what we used to call “Romneycare.”

One Day, One Trial, was started in Houston in 1971. Instead of being called to jury duty for a month (an onerous duty most people tried hard to avoid), they started calling people for just one day, with almost no wiggle room to duck out. If you got selected for a trial, you might have to come back for one or two days (longer in rare instances), and then you were done for at least 3 years.

Everyone liked this new system. The judges didn’t have to waste time hearing excuses, the lawyers felt that the jury pool was much more representative of the defendant’s “peers.” And the jurors usually served a single day or less.

But even though everyone liked this new system, it was 8 years before it was adopted in Middlesex County, Mass, and three more before the whole state picked it up.

Romneycare started in Massachusetts in 2006 and was followed by a very similar countrywide program – the Affordable Care Act — signed into federal law by President Obama only four years later.

I think we could do a lot more to increase the use of successful experiments from our “laboratories of democracy.”

My suggestion is that Congress create what they used to call a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to study and report on each experiment worth looking at. Each committee would have a diverse selection of people from both left and right and a small staff of experts with enough of a budget to do research as necessary.

Committees would be time-limited, studying a situation for say, a year, and then issuing a report. The report’s contents would be dictated by the majority, but minority reports could also be issued.

If the committees work as they should, successful experiments will be adopted more quickly.


1. Oregon, Washington and Colorado vote exclusively by mail. 19 more allow some elections by mail.

2. Vote-by-mail increases turnout, sometimes dramatically. So far no serious problems have emerged.

3. Cambridge started ranked choice voting in1941. It is used in many places around the world and reports are generally quite positive. Maine voters started RCV by passing an initiative petition. The State Supreme Court limited its application to the primaries until they can amend the state constitution.

4. Nebraska has only one house, a Senate, which is elected on a non-partisan basis. Not everyone agrees, but generally, it is felt that unicameral legislatures are more efficient and less expensive.

5. Both Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes for President by Congressional District. In the last half-century, there has been one time in each state when a district voted for the “other” candidate (the one that didn’t win the statewide vote). In 2008 Nebraska did it, and in 2016 Maine.)

6. Per pupil funding for schools varies widely in different states. So does the system for raising money, although overall about equal amounts come from state and local taxes. The effect of funding on performance is hotly debated. I do think it is clear, however, that spending is only one factor in performance. For example, Massachusetts schools are rated best in nation, but we are 11th in per-pupil spending.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply