Is Your State’s Democracy Healthy? We Looked at the Warning Signs

Light blue background with red and blue and purple toned states spread across and a blue-toned stethoscope in the middle.

More than 300 candidates for House, Senate and statewide offices who refuse to accept the reality that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election are on the ballot in races across the country this year. Many of them are vying to oversee their state’s elections, which could allow them to use their power to restrict voting rights and even sabotage our democracy.

For example, an election denier as secretary of state could put onerous new restrictions on how and when mail-in ballots are received or counted. They could allow for endless, unnecessary audits and recounts that would waste time and money and reduce the public’s faith in our democracy. They could even refuse to certify election results they don’t like. In a close presidential election in a battleground state, this is a recipe for chaos.

These threats — combined with the dozens of states that have already passed restrictive voting laws in the past two years and the increasing influence of anonymous, special interest money in politics — have left a majority of Americans concerned about the future of our democracy. 

Americans are justifiably skeptical that they can have elected officials who truly work for them. They know that it impacts the wellbeing of their families when corporations have too much power over policy or when politicians don’t have to worry about losing an election because their seat is so gerrymandered.

That’s why End Citizens United / Let America Vote Action Fund has created a first-of-its-kind State Democracy Scorecard that takes a comprehensive look at the health of democracy in all 50 states and offers people a roadmap to demand their elected officials take action. Specifically, we’ve analyzed each state’s voting laws, campaign finance and anti-corruption policies and protections against democracy subversion. Our scorecard also highlights key warning signs, including the election deniers who could end up running the same elections they’ve worked to undermine.

state democracy scorecard Check Out Your State's Score

At the top of the list for having healthy democracies are Colorado, Washington, Maine, California and Hawaii — all states that have actively worked to defend the freedom to vote and protect elections from sabotage and that have strong anti-corruption and campaign finance laws to reduce the power of big money special interests. On the other end of the spectrum, the states with the five lowest scores — Indiana, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama — have restricted voting, allowed special interests to wield too much influence and made it easier to subvert future elections.

Some states have strong voting laws and weak campaign finance laws. All of them have room to make improvements to increase transparency and accountability in our political system. 

Overall, our research finds a stark divergence between states improving access to voting and those restricting access to the ballot, leading us toward a two-tier democracy where the strength of voters’ electoral power relies on where they live. 

Republican-led states like Florida, Georgia and Iowa have put new restrictions on absentee voting and limited the availability of drop boxes. Georgia, Iowa, Kansas and Texas have enacted new criminal penalties on election workers and others who try to assist voters in casting their ballots in typically ordinary ways. Combined, these changes will make it harder for people to cast their votes. 

Democratic-led states are moving in the other direction. Just this year, New York passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York, which will help prevent discriminatory voting practices. In the past two years, six states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Nevada and New York — all chose to implement or expand automatic voter registration. Others have increased access to drop boxes, made it easier to vote by mail and restored voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.

When it comes to fighting corruption, only a few states have taken action to address the outsized influence of dark money, which has grown dramatically in the 12 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. While some states — Montana, Washington, Alaska and Minnesota — have taken important steps to require organizations that spend money on elections to disclose some information about their major donors, they are the exceptions. In both red and blue states, lawmakers have failed to adequately address the threat that political spending, allowed by Citizens United, has on Americans’ ability to know who’s trying to influence their votes for legislative and statewide elections.  

State efforts to protect our elections from subversion and sabotage is the third key area we looked at for this scorecard. California, Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Vermont have all recently passed legislation to protect election workers from threats and harassment, but other states are making it easier for politicians and bad-faith actors to act in ways that could undermine our democracy. Georgia passed a law giving partisan lawmakers the ability to overrule the decisions of local election boards they don’t like. Florida set up a police task force to harass and imprison people who were told by their own government they could vote — an effort that could have a real chilling effect on the formerly incarcerated people who are legally allowed to cast ballots under Florida law.

As people head to the polls this year, we hope this scorecard can help lay out the stakes for how much damage can be done if we give people who want to undermine our democracy the power to do so. For example, many of the 300 election-denying candidates running for office this year are vying for positions such as governor, secretary of state and attorney general that have an important role in administering elections and protecting voters from harassment and intimidation. 

Looking ahead to next year when new legislative sessions begin around the country, we also hope this scorecard can serve as a blueprint for concrete policies Americans can press their lawmakers to adopt to protect voting rights, reduce corruption and protect the safety and integrity of our democracy.  

Tiffany Muller is the president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote.