Are states labs for experimentation–or chaos?

Republicans love to bash the federal government and assert that social and economic policy out to be developed by and implemented by the 50 states. They shower states with accolades such as “laboratories for experimentation.”

They may be right that 50 states can take 50 approaches, but frequently they’re dead wrong about the contention that this results in good policy. When it comes to civil rights, a century after the 15th Amendment stated “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” southern states were still busy as laboratories trying to determine how best to prevent African-Americans from voting. Some states required an African-American to memorize 8,624 words in the U.S. Constitution. Other states used tactics of fear – physically threatening African-Americans who tried to exercise their right to vote. Some states took names for future retribution. Voting by African-Americans in Dixie did not take place until after 1965, when the federal government passed legislation authorizing federal registrars to manage voter registration and elections in any locale in which African-Americans had faced discrimination.

The laboratory system has not worked for Medicaid,  where some states have essentially eliminated the eligibility of many citizens in need. Every state continues to operate with an educational funding system that provides far more resources for children from wealthy families than for those from poor families.

Some Republicans many know of the terrible history of states’ rights but don’t particularly care, because it has not had a negative impact upon them. However, for Republican presidential ,candidates, the anarchy of the states in establishing a calendar for caucuses and primaries in 2011-2012 has created great confusion and uncertainty. Though they won’t say it, they probably would be happy with some of the reforms advanced by progressives, including regional primaries that would take place on dates closer to the party conventions.

How bad is it now?

Jason McLure reported in Reuters on the confusion that Republicans are having in establishing a schedule.

Nevada and New Hampshire are among four states authorized by the Republican National Committee to hold the first contests on the road to choosing a nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.

Aiming to protect the state’s status as one of the earliest contests in the race, Nevada Republicans pushed up their caucus by more than a month to January 14 after Florida bumped its primary in a move that left the nominating process in turmoil.

But Nevada’s move irked New Hampshire, which traditionally holds its primary ahead of Nevada’s caucus. Under current plans, Iowa is tentatively scheduled to hold its first in the nation caucus on January 3, with the Nevada caucus penciled in for 11 days later.

Not wanting to be boxed in, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State has threatened to hold the state’s primary as early as December 6 unless Nevada pushes its caucus back.

New Hampshire traditionally holds its primary on a Tuesday, and state law requires it to hold its contest seven days before any “similar” contest.

A move by Nevada to push its caucus back by three days to January 17 could allow New Hampshire to hold a primary on January 10 and still have a one-week space before Nevada’s contest.

There is no doubt that the federal government makes errors in judgment and mismanages some programs. However, the national government is structured to operate in an efficient and responsive manner. It fails when the human beings in the government and those who choose to influence them (primarily monied lobbyists) fail to exercise good judgment.

On the other hand, the structure of states’ rights is a disaster. It allows 50 units to compete to achieve the lowest common denominator. For instance, which state can offer the greatest amount of giveaways to corporations that are considering locating facilities there? Which states can go furthest in guaranteeing workers the “right to work for less” in order to please corporate powers within their jurisdiction?

As 2011 draws to a close, the camps of candidates Romney, Perry, Bachmann, Cain, etc. can point fingers at particular states for perpetrating some injustices upon them. However, none of these candidates, and for that matter no Democrats in the past, have seriously challenged the anarchical system that we have for choosing presidential candidates.

Democrats are more closely aligned with the values of true democracy. They should use the current laboratory of Republican electoral chaos as reason to advance reforms such as regional primaries and, ultimately, the abolition of the Electoral College. I don’t hear many Democrats suggesting reforms. If they did, I think they’d be surprised at how much the American people would appreciate a system that had predictability and fairness. That’s only possible with federal control of elections. Democrats, please don’t be afraid to advocate that.

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.