Can Federalism Save American Democracy?


Beyond the gridlocked Congress, across the country, the United States is witnessing an underappreciated flourishing of new ideas and approaches to revitalizing democracy and participation, at the state level. From automatic voter registration to new models of primaries to ranked-choice voting and several models of public financing of campaigns, states are fulfilling the role promised by Justice Brandeis when he referred to them as “laboratories of democracy” in 1932.

Please join New America as we unveil the first comprehensive map of these experiments and initiatives, the Laboratories of Democracy Database. The American tradition of federalism, embraced by conservatives as well as progressives, recognizes the role of states in developing and testing policies, giving us an opportunity to really see what works, what doesn’t, and how reforms interact with each other and with the political culture of the state. 

The Laboratories of Democracy Database will take Brandeis’s definition literally. By bringing together the first comprehensive, visually accessible atlas of state reforms and laws across all areas of democracy, from voting systems to campaign finance, we’ll allow activists, researchers and journalists to see what’s working where, and to see the interactions among reforms such as small-donor public financing and open primaries, for example. The website will also include links to accessible summaries of the academic research on the effects of these reforms, and regular updates from organizations pursuing state-level reforms. Equipped with this knowledge, activists and policymakers in other states can find strategies that will work for their states. 

Laboratories of Democracy is part of a larger collaborative effort among reform organizations that began with a groundbreaking national conference organized by California Forward in January, 2017. On February 23, leaders of the reform collaborative will announce further plans to build a national movement toward state-level reform, drawing on the lessons from the database. 


Lenny Mendonca@Lenny_Mendonca 
Chair, New America 

Karen Hobert Flynn@KHobertFlynn 
President, Common Cause 

Anne-Marie Slaughter@SlaughterAM
President, New America 

Mark Schmitt@mschmitt9 
Director, Political Reform Program, New America 

Larry Stafford, @LarryStaffordJr  
Executive Director, Progressive Maryland