Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as laboratories of democracy, where a “courageous” state can “try novel social and economic experiments.” (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

There’s never an off year when it comes to important elections. Although most political observers are focused on the 2024 presidential election, there are key races this fall that will have a significant impact on democracy.  

Voters in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi will choose governors. (Louisiana has done so, electing Jeff Landry, in an open gubernatorial primary on October 14.) Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia will select members of their state legislatures. The officials in these positions will have a significant say on issues such as felon re-enfranchisement. There are important judicial elections in Pennsylvania. An election denier is running for Director of Elections in Seattle. A ballot initiative on abortion will appear on the Ohio ballot. There are also numerous statewide ballot initiatives in a handful of states. 

Perhaps most importantly, issues of how states and localities run their elections are also at play. Once again, Daniel Nichanian of Bolts Magazine has published a “cheat sheet” for the upcoming election. Reviewing this summary reveals key issues as voters decide whether to adopt significant election reforms. 

Several localities will determine whether to expand their electorate, following the actions in previous years to allow more people to vote. Rockville, Maryland, residents will vote on an “advisory referendum” on lowering the voting age to sixteen and allowing non-citizens to vote in city elections. These two issues have gained traction in various communities over the past several years. Five other cities in Maryland allow sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to vote in local elections; Brattleboro, Vermont, also recently enacted this reform. Further, several localities around the country have enfranchised non-citizens for either school board or all local elections, and a California appeals court recently upheld San Francisco’s rule. In the other direction, a handful of states amended their constitutions recently to prohibit localities from letting non-citizens vote in any elections in the state—though no states are voting on that idea this year. 

Meanwhile, Maine voters will determine whether to remove a provision from the state constitution that “prohibit[s] a person under guardianship for reasons of mental illness from voting.” However, the ballot measure will not have much practical effect as a federal judge invalidated the provision in 2001 as a matter of constitutional law. If it passes, the initiative will simply update the state constitution accordingly. But, as Bolts Magazine notes, the Maine constitutional amendment could spur other states to remove similar language in their own constitutions. Maine voters will also consider another ballot initiative that would similarly align the state constitution with a federal court ruling by allowing nonresidents to circulate ballot petitions.  

Voters in Royal Oak, East Lansing, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, will decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting for local elections. This reform, which allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, has swept the nation, with dozens of localities (including New York City) and two states—Alaska and Maine—using the voting mechanism. (A measure to approve ranked choice voting for Nevada elections will be on the ballot in 2024; it passed already in 2022 but the state constitution requires approval in two consecutive elections for an amendment.) Proponents note that ranked-choice voting offers a better way to gain consensus among the electorate and ensures voters don’t feel like they must choose between the “lesser of two evils.” 

Cleveland voters can adopt participatory budgeting, giving the public direct control over two percent of the city’s budget and letting voters decide which projects to fund. The measure is the result of a true grassroots movement in the community. Perhaps most dynamically, the process would allow people as young as thirteen to develop proposals for the money and then vote on which projects to fund. 

On the other end of the spectrum—making elections harder to administer—Louisiana voters decided to constitutionalize a ban on “Zuckerbucks,” or private donations to assist in election funding, in mid-October. During the 2020 election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $350 million to a nonprofit organization that gave grants to numerous states and localities on a nonpartisan basis. Conspiracy theories among Donald Trump supporters have targeted these grants, although there is zero evidence that they led to any shenanigans. They simply helped election officials run a smooth election during a pandemic. But that fact has not stopped states from seeking to ban these funds. Twenty-four states have enacted a law prohibiting the use of private funds—all passing them since 2020. Louisiana’s outgoing governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, vetoed similar legislative enactments. So proponents put a measure on the ballot, and Louisiana voters decided to add a rule to the state constitution. Of course, this issue would not be a concern if states would adequately fund their election systems. 

Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as laboratories of democracy, where a “courageous” state can “try novel social and economic experiments.” In my own work on local democracy, I used that analogy to argue that localities should serve as “test tubes of democracy” to try out voting reforms at the local level. The ballot measures this year show that states and localities continue to embrace this ideal. Voters should consider ways to make their voting processes more open and inclusive, with state and local measures leading the way.  


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Joshua A. Douglas is a law professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Court v. The Voters: The Troubling Story of How the Supreme Court Has Undermined Voting Rights" and "Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting." Find him at www.joshuaadouglas.com and follow him on Twitter @JoshuaADouglas.