Laboratories of Democracy

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Amid the thousands of words written and spoken about what this month's elections meant or didn't mean for the national political parties, one small item from the election reminds us of the importance of states as laboratories of democracy.

That item: Oregon voted to do away with ballot boxes and vote entirely by mail in future elections.

Is Oregon's approach a good idea? It might be. Nearly two-thirds of this year's Oregon voting was by absentee ballot, and I noticed the tally took a long time. Does the change mean that the outcome of elections won't be known for days? Is there a greater risk of vote fraud?

Good questions, but they miss the point. The real significance is that we are going to find out whether voting by mail is a good idea or bad ó and Oregon is going to be the testing ground. If the approach works, other states can adopt the practice. If it doesn't work, Oregon can change the law. Or it may be that voting entirely by mail works in Oregon but isn't to the taste of other states, in which case the rest of the nation isn't stuck with a bad law.

It's like test marketing. When the private sector produces a new product or service, it rarely has an immediate national rollout. Instead, it is tested in certain markets to find its strengths or weaknesses, and the findings are used to make changes ó or even to kill the product or service altogether. Stage plays have tryouts in various areas and the creators may change the content radically before the plays get to Broadway. Movies often are screened for test audiences before general release, and the final product may be quite different from the original version.

Where we've adapted the same practice to government, test marketing policies in one or a few states, we've been better off than if they were handed down by fiat from Washington, D.C. Examples involving welfare reform and education immediately come to mind.

The welfare legislation that Congress passed in 1996 incorporated many of the provisions already tried in such states as Oregon and Wisconsin ó often tried, incidentally, in the face of strong opposition from the nation's capital. It's noteworthy, too, that Oregon and Wisconsin didn't try to impose top-down welfare reform in one fell swoop. Both first tried ideas in pilot counties, and made adjustments as they saw the success or failure of what was being tried. By the time the federal legislation took shape, the lawmakers could draw on lessons learned in the states.

States that have approved charter schools are breaking new ground in reforming elementary and secondary education. And Wisconsin and Ohio are experimenting with pilot tax-funded voucher programs for school choice. Small programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland allow low-income families to move their children from low-performing or dangerous public schools to private schools. Again both Wisconsin and Ohio are acting in the face of strong opposition, including court challenges. But the result of experiments in these laboratories of democracy will offer invaluable guidance for making future policy.

This doesn't mean that state governments always do the right thing, just as not every laboratory experiment is a success. In health care, for example, we see states from coast to coast contributing to the rising costs of health care and consequently the rising number of people without health insurance. Under pressure, or mistakenly thinking they are protecting citizens, various states have passed laws requiring that health insurance policies include more than 1,000 specific kinds of coverage ó in some states, for such things as hairpieces and marriage counseling. To make matters worse, these mandates affect only individuals and small businesses. Larger firms escape through federal law exempting them from the mandates.

On the other side of the coin, states have been trying a variety of innovative approaches to dealing with the problem of Medicaid. Examining the problem from 50 different points of view is more likely to produce a solution than having one imposed from Washington.

Those of us who still believe in limited government sometimes see some hope in those state government laboratories. For example, a number of states now limit tax increases through such mechanisms as requiring a two-thirds or three-fourths vote of the legislature for passage. And the term limits movement continues to make quiet progress; three states passed measures allowing congressional candidates to pledge to voluntarily limit the number of terms they serve. Neither policy may ever make its way to Capitol Hill, but then there was a time when they said the same about another policy that got its start among the states; it was called woman suffrage, and it turned out to be a very good idea.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.