Pew Center on the States (from Pew Prospectus 2009)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Susan K. Urahn


03/20/2009 - Election reform swept the country in the early 1900s. One by one, states adopted primaries that bypassed party bosses and smoke-filled rooms, enabling voters for the first time to choose their own delegates to presidential conventions.

With popular interest growing, states began to document elections by publishing volumes of data, including statistics on turnout and election returns.

In the decades that followed, however, many of the changes instituted by the good-government reformers of the Progressive Era unraveled; the primary system faded away, partly for lack of interest, and did not make a comeback until the 1970s. Other efforts to make voting more transparent and inclusive also made progress slowly. It was not until the presidential election of 1920 that women in all states were allowed to exercise their right of suffrage. And the poll tax, widely used in the South after the turn of the 20th century in combination with other measures to bar blacks and poor whites from voter registration and voting, was finally outlawed with a Constitutional amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today, with the right to vote—in primaries as well as general elections—extended to all Americans, those particular struggles are a matter for history. Voting, the most basic right in a democracy, is widely accessible to our citizenry. Yet that very success, along with improved technology, has created new challenges. These are among the many state-based issues that Pew is working hard to address.

Through on-the-ground experiments in half the states, we are testing several promising election innovations—from streamlined voter registration processes to online portals that help voters find out whether they are registered and where to vote. The Voter Information Project, a joint effort by Pew, Google Inc., and state and local election officials, is substantially improving states’ ability to deliver official voting information via the Internet. And electionline.org, housed on the Pew Center on the States’ nonpartisan Web site, is conveying up-to-the-minute news and analysis of election administration to policy makers, election officials, advocates and the public.

In the past year, we took a particular interest in one sector of the electorate that has struggled to vote for decades: the nation’s military men and women serving overseas. Of the one million ballots mailed to these voters in 2006, only one-third were counted—the equivalent of losing all the voters in the state of Nevada. Working with the Overseas Vote Foundation, Pew supported the creation of new voter-friendly Web applications designed to help the estimated six million members of the uniformed services and other overseas voters negotiate the legal and logistical hurdles they confront when trying to register to vote and cast a ballot in their home states. In 2008, 4.5 million visitors (1.25 million in October alone) took advantage of this new online tool. However, overseas voters still must find their way through a complicated and time-consuming patchwork of state and local regulations, a problem that will be an important focus for Pew this year.

Helping states respond to extraordinary fiscal stresses and learn from each other’s best practices is also a core component of the work of the Pew Center on the States. Stateline.org, our online state policy news site, reports on daily developments by state governments;

Trends to Watch, also online, tracks long-term economic trends and other topics across all 50 states; and upcoming center reports will provide more in-depth analysis of financial issues affecting the states, ranging from their pension fund liabilities to the potential benefit of investments in the green economy.

Faced with a $200-billion budget deficit over the next two years, state policy makers are proposing painful cuts in human capital programs, including prekindergarten, which are essential to develop the nation’s workforce and ensure long-term economic success. For the past three years, Pew has been working intensively in one sector—corrections—where states can spend less and improve outcomes. The national price tag for corrections is now over $50 billion a year, but the country is not getting an adequate return on this investment. With recidivism rates at nearly the same level of 20 years ago, when states spent far less on incarceration, it is time to focus on more cost-effective alternatives. Pew is assisting several states, including Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Arizona—states led by Republicans and Democrats alike—in taking a hard look at who is going to prison and how long they are staying, and identifying those who can be safely supervised in the community at far lower cost.

In recent years, states have made significant gains funding programs, such as high-quality early education, that have been proven to deliver vital, long-term social and economic results. As they navigate the current economic turbulence, the Pew Center on the States is committed to providing the guidance that will help states make wise budget choices—cutting unnecessary spending while creating and preserving programs critical to our nation’s future.

Susan K. Urahn
Managing Director, Pew Center on the States

Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2009 (PDF).

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