Out West student blog

Strong States: Exploring the ins and outs of state legislatures in Denver

Theresa on her first day of work at NCSL.

By Theresa Nelson '22

Hometown: Lone Tree, Colorado
Elections Policy Intern, National Conference of State Legislatures




Why did you want to do this internship?

When I heard about this internship with National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver, I knew I had to apply! I spent my spring quarter doing election research with Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group and loved the opportunity to learn how laws are made in the states and how they affect everyday citizens and voters. With the opportunity to work at the elections department here, I was excited to continue learning about elections—a truly complex process—and be able to support the states as they grapple with the best way to ensure this pivotal part of democracy is effective and accessible. A Colorado native, I was also thrilled to be able to spend the summer working and learning so close to home.

How does your role support the host organization's mission?

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that provides the states “support, ideas, connections and a strong voice on Capitol Hill.” My role in the elections department is to research and track election and redistricting policy so as to provide information to legislators, legislative staff, or other inquirers who reach out the NCSL with information requests. I hope that with the work I do I am able to assist constituents as they consider different policy ideas so that they can learn from other states and better combat election and redistricting issues they may face. I am also able to shine light on specific policy changes, trends, or issues so that the public and the large NCSL network can stay informed about the work legislatures are doing, thus further supporting the states.

How would you describe one of the projects you will be working on this summer?

One of my projects that I am particularly excited about is research on the process of placing citizen initiatives or referendums on the ballot. Twenty-four states allow citizens to propose laws through initiatives or to repeal laws by referendums. Measures like these have historically brought about significant changes in the states. In 2018 alone, two citizen initiatives raised the statewide minimum wage (Missouri Proposition B, Arkansas Issue 5), three legalized either medical or recreational marijuana (Michigan Proposal 1, Missouri Amendment 2, Oklahoma State Question 788, Utah Proposition 2 (though it was later altered by the legislature)), three expanded Medicaid eligibility (Nebraska Initiative 427, and Utah Proposition 2 and Idaho Proposition 2, which were both later altered by their respective legislature), and many more measures were proposed and passed! I am looking at legislation in the states that have changed, or tried to change, citizen initiative and referendum processes this past year, and I am tracking measures that will be on the ballot in 2019. I plan to write about these topics and share them with constituents and the public alike.

How does this project relate to your studies and/or career goals?

As a public policy major, I appreciate the opportunity to learn about specific policy in depth, to understand how it came about and what its effects are. Looking at policy from the perspective of a researcher has been very interesting, and I think it will tremendously enhance my future career in policymaking. Furthermore, I think this project will enhance my perspective as a citizen in a state that allows for citizen initiatives and referendum. The ballot measures that I will vote on this year and in the future do matter, and I think it has been very valuable to understand the complexities behind how they are placed on the ballot and how they impact the states.

Has anything surprised you about the work, the organization, or the environment?

NCSL is strictly bipartisan, and I have been pleasantly surprised to see how this plays into the work they do. I admire how every employee sets aside their personal politics to support the valuable institutions that hold up our states. I have been challenged to do the same, and to look at governments from more complex angles than simply party politics and polarization. I think this makes my work even more valuable, and I know that the ability to look at policies and issues in different, critical ways will be a skill that I carry into my personal and professional life in the future.

Theresa exploring the mountains at Grand Lake, CO


Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

Recent Center News

A three-state survey conducted by the Bill Lane Center and other academic institutions explores citizens' attitudes and political affiliations in three key Western states. The findings indicate no dramatic differences among citizens of the same party across Arizona, California or Texas.
A lawsuit in California to hold big oil accountable; Southern California and Arizona explore desalination in the face of drought; growing urchins to save the kelp forests; wildfires cause a decrease in air quality across the United States; and other environmental news from around the West.
In many drought-stricken regions, water security is threatened by shifting climate and demographic conditions. In research funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment, Center Director Bruce Cain and colleagues will develop a new approach to drought management that accounts for long-term socio-environmental change.