News & Ideas  -  Creating Laboratories of Democracy: A Case for Vigilance, Even When Winning

David Pepper From Many, We Senior Fellows

By David Pepper

As I diagnose the deep problems in gerrymandered red statehouses, I’m often challenged by Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike:

Well, what about blue states? 

They aren’t perfect either. 

Why don’t you talk about those? 

Actually, I do talk about the blue states, both in my books and regularly with democracy activists. As I put it in Laboratories of Autocracy: “When those who support democracy have the power to strengthen democracy, they must do so. And do it as soon as the opportunity presents itself.” 

Opportunities for Democracy Activism 

First, gerrymandering anywhere leads to poor representation and poor governance. I want it gone, wherever it is and whoever does it. Which is one reason I’m a big proponent of reform at the federal level that will eliminate it from all states. Just like I want reform at the state level that also keeps any party from gerrymandering. Ending gerrymandering will help everyone and improve government everywhere! 

But beyond gerrymandering, I have a second strong principle I push: If those who believe in democracy gain a majority of a state legislature, or other positions of power, they must act to turn their state into a laboratory of democracy. The sooner, the better! 

And that’s why it’s been so great to see the fervent pro-democracy activity in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota since those majorities flipped in 2022. The new leaders of these states have enacted a wide variety of pro-voter, pro-democracy best practices—from automatic voter registration to wide use of drop boxes, to same day voter registration, to felon re-enfranchisement, to preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and more. 

The Institute for Responsive Government recently released their 2024 report and gave Minnesota, Michigan, and New Mexico A+ ratings for the changes made in 2023. In only a year of work, these states are creating true laboratories of democracy. 

Why Does This Matter? Let Us Count the Ways 

Some partisans may ask, If these states are already blue, why does this matter? 

The first answer is that democracy is bigger than party, so it matters no matter where it’s done, whether blue state or red state. We need to apply the same high standards everywhere. 

Second, strengthening democracy is the right thing to do. Voters in all states are entitled to laws that make our democracy as accessible as possible. In 2023, there are many best practices that we know work. 

Third, democracy reforms create more working precedents of what’s possible and of what’s popular. Anti-democracy forces are working overtime to create myths that voter fraud accompanies these types of reforms. Don’t buy those lies. There’s no better way to show they are false than to implement them widely and show that such reforms make the process of voting easier.  

We already know that the widespread use of drop boxes in Washington State and Oregon leads to more convenient voting and higher turnout without any problems. We need to show that drop boxes improve voter turnout by adding them in more states. When implemented, these reforms are also incredibly popular because they are so convenient for voters of all parties and persuasions. Best practices in pro-voter states create pressure to change in others. And getting rid of those options once they’re in place becomes very unpopular. 

Fourth, not undertaking these changes is harmful. Poor voting laws mean fewer people vote, which means lower turnout. As we learned in New York State in 2022, that lower turnout can carry major national consequences (potentially altering the House majority itself). To their credit, New York legislators also updated their voting laws in 2023 easing the early vote process in a way that should help voters in 2024. They just got an A- for those changes. Good! 

Neglecting democracy reform is also harmful in another way. Whenever a blue state has poor voting laws, anti-democracy forces use those states as a battering ram for why voting reform should not be enacted. These forces know exactly which states aren’t doing things well and choose to throw those flaws in the face of voting reform advocates at every opportunity. We must not unintentionally reinforce those cynical arguments. 

Advocacy for Democracy in Blue States: The Massachusetts Example 

If you are a pro-democracy activist in a blue state, of course your help is needed in gerrymandered and highly suppressed red states. But don’t forget to take a look at your own state laws and advocate to improve them there too for all the reasons I cite above. I’m writing this from a train racing through snowy Massachusetts because recently a passionate coalition of activist groups I’ve gotten to know from across Massachusetts did exactly that at their statehouse.  

Various groups have been pushing a variety of reforms within their state government for some time, starting with same-day voter registration (which has been proposed for 15 years but never implemented), the elimination of an antiquated voter registration purging process, the regular inspection of polling places to ensure they are accessible, and absentee/mail voting reforms. They are also pushing for a more transparent legislative process. 

In January 2024, the Massachusetts democracy groups had their first ever “Lobby Day” at the statehouse, where they gathered to train new members and jointly advocate for the specific bills that would implement these priorities. To quote one of their leaders Deb Paul, chairperson of the Indivisible Mass Coalition: 

Many people have a false assumption that we shouldn’t bother with the MA Statehouse anyway because we’re such a “blue” state. But what Massachusetts does matters because it’s seen as a leader by other states and it can frequently impact the nation in both positive and negative ways.  

Yesterday’s lobby day at the Massachusetts State House was an exciting day of democracy in action! Over 50 people met with their elected state legislators, exercising their constituent power and asking their electeds to vote in favor of three essential rights bills. . . . People gathered after their legislator meetings and were enthused and energized to continue their activism as many had never met with their elected officials until yesterday. It was an inspiring and transformative experience for those who attended as they had made a difference by helping move the MA legislature in a positive direction of improving people’s rights! 

Tell me you’re not inspired! 

What Deb and these tireless activists showed in Massachusetts was that the battle for democracy involves more than just even-year elections in swing states, or elections at all. Lifting democracy involves nonstop effort, in blue states and red, on big election days as well as every day. 


A version of this article previously appeared at Pepperspectives. Material from the previous version is reprinted by permission of the author 

David Pepper is a Kettering Senior Fellow, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, and author of Laboratories of Autocracy and Saving Democracy. 

From Many, We is a Kettering Foundation blog series that highlights the insights of thought leaders dedicated to the idea of inclusive democracy. Queries may be directed to