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Report ranks every state on 5 key democracy reform moves

No state is perfect when it comes to democracy reform, but some are way better than others.

That's the conclusion of Unite America, which advocates for changing the political process in order to boost the chances of consensus-minded candidates, in its first national rankings.

This State of Democracy scorecard, released this week, grades all 50 states on their implementation of five changes the group believes go furthest to helping the sorts of pragmatic politicians it likes: ranked-choice voting, automatic voter registration, voting by mail, primaries open to all voters and taking partisanship out of electoral mapmaking.

The goal for the report card, which Unite America hopes to compile every three months, is to set a baseline and establish metrics from which reform progress can be measured, said Tyler Fisher, the group's deputy director.

"We hope the report catches the imagination of legislators, political candidates and influencers to encourage them to advance these reforms," Fisher said. "Obviously, we would love to see every state on the map getting darker, where more states are adopting more reforms."

While there are other types of democracy reform that states have acted on, Unite America chose to focus on five that get the lion's share of the attention in the world of democracy reform, because they have "the power and potential to improve electoral incentives for politicians and incumbents," Fisher said. Partnering with other reform groups, Unite America gathered research to figure out each state's reform status.

There has been a steady adoption of changes in recent years, especially after a wave of successful ballot initiatives last fall. Overall, in the last decade, 15 of the 18 ballot measures advancing one of the five changes has won voter approval.

Open primaries have been most widely adopted and now govern nominating contests in 30 states with 145 million voters. Ranked-choice voting has won the least widespread use, affecting only 5 million voters in one state (Maine) and a score of municipalities.

But Unite America found that in a handful of states, almost no improvements have been noticed.

The states were ranked from zero to 50, with up to 10 points awarded for adoption of each of the five changes. California finished first, with 40 points, missing out on the points for ranked-choice voting. Kentucky finished dead last because it only has a limited system for voting by mail for the elderly.

These scores are likely to change soon because several state legislatures have embraced changes this year that will be implemented by the time the next report comes out. (These rankings only reflect changes implemented by this month.)

For the next report card, Unite America wants to include a more rigorous assessment of how the implementation of these five changes have made real-world differences for voters in every state. Without data on how these reforms are impacting communities, it's difficult to measure how much progress is being made, Fisher said.

Seven states had scores above 30:

  • California (40)
  • Colorado (38)
  • Michigan (36)
  • Washington (36)
  • Alaska (33)
  • New Jersey (32)
  • Vermont (32)

Nine states had scores in the single digits:

  • Pennsylvania (9)
  • New York (8)
  • Indiana (7)
  • Tennessee (7)
  • Florida (6)
  • New Mexico (6)
  • Delaware (5)
  • New Hampshire (5)
  • Kentucky (2)
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