There’s No Democracy in the U.S. Without Democracy in the States

The Wisconsin state capitol building seen along a downtown street
The state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by csfotoimages

CLC’s award-winning podcast, “Democracy Decoded,” begins its third season today with stories about how our ongoing national struggle to advance and improve our system of self-government plays out at the state and local level. You can subscribe to the podcast here

One of the defining features of our democracy is the presence of strong state and local governments that have a profound impact on our daily lives—from school funding to road construction to the administering of elections.  

Before joining CLC, I spent four years working as chief of staff to a Wisconsin state representative. It was incredibly gratifying to work directly with legislators, constituents and stakeholders to find solutions to important issues, but I also had a front-row seat to see how special interests and self-interested politicians manipulate our democratic systems to serve their own purposes, instead of the people. 

In the case of Wisconsin, partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts has made it possible for elected officials to tune out the voices of many of their constituents and pander to extreme partisans.

In the few competitive legislative seats that remain, a huge influx of secret spending floods inboxes, mailboxes and the airwaves, while making it difficult for voters to know who (or what entities) are trying to influence their votes. 

These issues aren’t unique to Wisconsin. State and local governments across the country have seen similar problems. The good news, however, is that states and cities can also lead the way on solutions.  

As “laboratories of democracy,” state and local governments can be ideal arenas for making progress on and testing solutions to any number of democracy-related issues, playing a critical role in efforts to create a more representative, responsible and accountable government.  

In fact, with partisan gridlock making it very difficult to advance pro-democracy policies in our nation’s capital, state capitals have increasingly become the focus for those working on issues such as access to the ballot, equal representation in government, money in politics and more.  

As a campaign finance attorney at CLC, I witnessed the power of citizen-led leadership at the state level in Arizona, which passed a sweeping election spending transparency ballot initiative in November 2022.

Proposition 211, which received 72% of the statewide vote, requires major campaign advertising spenders in Arizona to disclose the true sources of the big donations that fund their election ads.  

Recognizing the grassroots energy behind the Arizona initiative, CLC partnered with local advocates to ensure the measure would give voters the information they need to know who is trying to influence elections in their state.

Since its passage, we have seen a surge of interest in other states and municipalities seeking to replicate this success and push back against the tide of secret spending that has been rising since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC opened the floodgates to unlimited spending in our elections.   

In our new season of Democracy Decoded, we’ll explore how ballot initiatives like Proposition 211 have become a vital tool for advancing pro-democracy policies that are widely popular among voters but opposed by some politicians and special interests.  

Unfortunately, resistance to democracy-strengthening efforts at the state and local level is common. A number of states this year have sought to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives. And we continue to see opposition to policies that expand access to the ballot and make state elections more efficient and fairer, a topic also explored in this season of the podcast. 

In our democracy, there is a long history of states pointing the way forward for the rest of the nation. Democracy Decoded season three investigates this dynamic aspect of our politics through the voices of CLC experts, lawmakers and advocates working to advance positive change. These stories of hard-won progress provide glimpses of what our future may hold if the movement to preserve and strengthen our democracy continues to grow. 

Listen to “Democracy Decoded” and become a subscriber

Elizabeth is a Senior Legal Counsel on the Campaign Finance team at CLC.