“Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.” – Lew Wallace
In 1881, then-Governor of New Mexico Lew Wallace, better known as the author of the classic novel Ben Hur, made the above quoted remark about his experience in what was then still the territory of New Mexico. Lew Wallace’s New Mexico was in transition, an area that was struggling to integrate into a country that was more interested in its land than its people. Even a century after New Mexico achieved statehood, locals often repeat that particular quote whenever someone tries to suggest we do something just because it worked well in another state.
What was true back in 1881 and even more so as the U.S. expanded, is that the country consists of 50 very unequal states plus the territories and District of Columbia. As someone who has lived in three different states, I am skeptical of state-by-state comparisons. Fifty state rankings exist on just about any topic, ranging from taxes to education to weather. The appeal is easy to understand: no one wants the distinction of being known as “worst in the country”. Most 50-state rankings are little more than click-bait and should not be taken too seriously. Even when you are not trying to rank the states, side-by-side comparisons still pose many difficulties. The states vary considerably in population, geography, economic activity, and political history. Sometimes it feels like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.
Often when state governments are looking to draft or revise the law, they start by researching what other states have already done on the same topic. That may sound reasonable, but I have found a few flaws in conducting and using published 50-state surveys for this purpose. One common problem is that different jurisdictions often use the same word to mean slightly different things. Researchers need to be careful with keyword searches in databases. Browsing by controlled subject-headings can help minimize some of the confusion.
Another issue I have found is that sometimes organizations that publish reports about trends in state governments will look at bills introduced by the legislatures but neglect to follow up on what happened to the bill. One time an economist from Washington D.C. contacted my library about a New Mexico statute he claimed went into effect a few years ago. When the library staff checked the state legislature’s bill tracker against the information he had, we found that the bill he was looking for had actually been postponed indefinitely.
The 50-state survey is a popular tool for researchers to compare and contrast the law of different jurisdictions. A number of organizations have already done the work of surveying different states on a specific legal topic and publish this information in an easy-to-digest format. Some examples include HeinOnline’s National Survey of State Laws and the National Conference of State Legislators’ bill-tracking databases. Although these tools are very useful for understanding the breadth of state laws, they aren’t the best at providing accurate information about specific jurisdictions. Researchers should consider the information they find in a 50-state survey as a starting point to do their own analysis.
On a final note, due to the ease with which researchers can overlook small details and come to flawed conclusions, I wonder if some would be better served to limit the scale of their research.
Do we really need to compare all 50 states to each other? Is a 25 state survey less valuable than a 50 state survey? Depending on what you are looking for, it seems possible that some researchers would get just as much out of conducting their own regional survey as they would trying to do a nationwide survey. It would certainly be less-time consuming, and it might even be more accurate given the previously mentioned differences between the states and the ease of getting overwhelmed trying to do too much.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.