From the Laboratories of Democracy

Laboratory of Democracy
Image via Politico

I’m very interested in this idea that states are the laboratories of democracy. It comes from an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis where he wrote that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” The idea has always been that the federal government would use the best ideas. Of course, conservatives just use the idea to decimate the federal government and give control to state and local governments for reasons I will get to in a moment.


During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney made a really interesting argument about said laboratories. As you will remember, Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts when he got a healthcare reform law passed that went on to be the prototype for Obamacare. In fact, in 2008, Romney ran on this law that he was understandably proud of. But after Obamacare was passed and all the Republicans decided it was “Socialism! Socially, I tell you!” Romney was forced to repudiated the law. But how could he, given that it was the same one he had been so proud of?!

His solution was both brilliant and bold. He said that his law was great, but that was on the state level. It worked great on the state level. But it was wrong to force the law on the entire nation. In other words: states are the laboratories of democracy, and nothing should ever come out of the laboratories! Usually I would agree. Most of what comes out of those laboratories is pernicious in the extreme.

Literacy Tests

In 1855, Connecticut changed its state constitution to require literacy tests to vote. The problem was those Irish! As Steve Thornton explained in Literacy Tests and the Right To Vote, “Citing an old English legal principle, literacy test promoters argued that if a person was not sufficiently educated, his vote could be too easily manipulated. To opponents, literacy tests constituted a legal means to disenfranchising minorities and other ‘undesirables.'”

After Reconstruction, the southern states grabbed hold the results of Connecticut’s laboratory. But there was still the problem that these states didn’t want blacks voting regardless of how literate they were and they did want more affluent whites voting no matter how illiterate they were. Not a problem! “In theory, the literacy requirement applied to every citizen. In practice, however, officials in charge of voter registration could administer the test at their discretion, which resulted in a discriminatory singling out of African Americans, the poor, and other groups.” It wasn’t until an amendment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 1970 that literacy tests were eliminated from Connecticut and other states.

Poll Tax

At the end of the Civil War, almost half the population of Florida was African American. This was a problem as far as the white elite were concerned. So after Reconstruction, they went about setting things “right.” As Darryl Paulson reported in, Florida’s History of Suppressing Blacks’ Votes, “[T]he 15th Amendment did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. Rather, it is a negative statement. It says the right to vote cannot be denied because of race.” In other words, blacks could be denied the right to vote as long as it technically wasn’t because of race.

Enter the poll tax:

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a poll tax. In 1889 the Legislature adopted a $2 annual poll tax as a requirement for voting. On the surface, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax. Both whites and blacks had to pay it.

In reality, the legislators knew that the $2 tax would affect blacks more because they were so poor. Although some poor whites also were disfranchised, they could often find ways to circumvent the tax. Candidates often paid the cost to entice voters. Election officials frequently “overlooked” the tax for whites.

Florida did away with the poll tax in 1938, because it created so much corruption due to the buying of votes. But it still took the federal government, in 1964, to outlaw this democratic laboratory innovation in many other states.

Voter ID

A much more recent innovation coming out of the democracy laboratories is Voter ID. What I’ve stressed here over the last few years is that Voter ID laws are really just indirect poll taxes. Republicans (Sorry, but it is always Republicans) see that those who don’t have state issued IDs are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. Forcing them to get these IDs is a kind of tax intended to disenfranchise them.

This great laboratory innovation first came out of Virginia, but it never made it into law because of the efforts the the Democratic Party and the NAACP. It wasn’t until 2004 when the Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act was passed. The Supreme Court has blocked requiring identification for registering to vote, but the requirement for voting has been upheld. Since Obama became President, there has been an avalanche of these laws.

I’m sure in twenty years, we will all look back at voter ID laws with the same revulsion that we now have at the idea of poll taxes. For now, however, Republicans and other conservatives can walk around with their heads held high saying, “We’re just trying to make sure elections are clean!” But in the end, we will see this new innovation of the laboratories of democracy for the racist, classist, and partisan attack it is.

I don’t have much of a good feeling about the states being the laboratories of democracy. In general, they bring bad things to life. For all the problems of the federal government, it is usually what is required to stop the states from oppressing their own minority groups. And even when they do good things like RomneyCare in Massachusetts, conservatives just ignore them or claim that they don’t scale nationwide. The idea of the states being laboratories of democracy is good in theory, but in practice it is useless. Or much, much worse.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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