Commentary Politics

Washington Is Not the Short-Term Answer to Securing Democracy. Your Local Statehouse Is.

Gaby Goldstein & Jiggy Athilingam

For decades, Republicans have artfully taken over state legislatures and weaponized their control to roll back voting protections.

Democrats have used their new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce HR 1, which tackles voting rights, money in politics, redistricting, and ethics. HR 1 is a bold, progressive piece of legislation that would modernize voting across the country, and its presence is critical to keeping democracy reform in the national conversation. But the harsh reality is that HR 1 will never become law while Trump lives in the White House and, for the foreseeable future, voting laws will continue to be determined by the states. Washington is not the short-term answer to securing democracy—your local statehouse is.

For decades, Republicans have artfully taken over state legislatures and weaponized their control to roll back voting protections, institute suppressive voting rules, and gerrymander district lines in ways directly at odds with democracy and fairness. Legislators must reclaim a state-centered strategy to protect against continued attacks on democracy and advance an agenda in the states centered on fair redistricting and voting rights reforms.

Redistricting, the process of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines, occurs after every national census. After the last census, in 2010, Republicans gained 675 state legislative seats and trifecta control in 21 states. Republican-led state legislatures then gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts, cementing their power for the entire decade.

Gerrymandering dilutes the voting power of the out party. In 2012, the GOP retained the majority in the House of Representatives despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes nationwide. In Pennsylvania last November, Democratic candidates won 54 percent of the state house popular vote, but won just 45 percent of the seats in the lower chamber.

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Beyond gerrymandering, Republican-led states have ruthlessly passed legislation laser-focused on suppressing the vote, which disproportionately affects communities of color. Classic tactics include voter ID laws, “exact match” requirements, and ending same-day registration. Voter suppression at the state level also has national consequences. As David Daley points out in Ratf**ked, in 2016 Wisconsin, more than 300,000 registered voters did not have the ID required by the new Republican voter ID law. Trump won Wisconsin by just under 23,000 votes.

The U.S. Supreme Court—which should be a check on the other branches of the federal government—has in recent years repeatedly failed to protect critical democratic institutions. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) worked wonders to increase voter registration and participation rates among communities of color. As Ari Berman describes in Give Us the Ballot, in the decades after the VRA’s passage, the number of Black registered voters in the South climbed from 31 percent to 73 percent, and the number of Black elected officials nationwide increased from fewer than 500 to more than 10,000. Later reauthorizations of the VRA expanded its reach to other communities of color and language-minority groups. Despite these laudable results, the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder opinion invalidated the most important section, allowing states to return to the bad old days of enacting voter suppression laws without federal oversight.

The Court has also repeatedly declined to offer relief for gerrymandering. During its last session, as Gaby Goldstein wrote in a piece for the Hill, “the Court declined to take a stand against partisan gerrymandering (Gill v. Whitford; Benisek), racial gerrymandering (Abbott v. Perez), and state-based voter suppression in the form of voter purges (Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute).”

Given Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation, the Court’s orientation towards these issues is unlikely to change. Without the Supreme Court, we will have to look to a different strategy to protect our democracy.

Democrats have gained significant power at the state level since Trump’s election—picking up six trifectas and breaking legislative supermajorities in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But there are still 22 states entirely controlled by Republicans, and 2020 is our last chance to shift the balance of power before district lines are redrawn again.

The good news is that many legislatures provide a blueprint for how to protect and expand voting rights at the state level. Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) has been adopted by 15 states and Washington, D.C., and Same Day Voter Registration (SDR) is available in 18 states and D.C. Both AVR and SDR significantly increase voter participation. Other state-based rules that promote registration and voter participation include preregistration of high school students, online registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

Meanwhile, it’s critical for us to resist the urge to focus exclusively on the shiny presidential election in 2020 and reserve some resources to flip state legislative seats before the lines are redrawn in 2021.

Now, more than ever, we need to look to the states to secure our pro-democracy civil rights. Constituent power goes a long way at the state level, and we can make meaningful electoral and policy change if we focus our efforts there. Every state legislative seat we flip and every pro-voter reform we pass dismantles the GOP stronghold.

It’s smart for U.S. House Democrats to make the first item on their legislative agenda a plan to introduce legislation to strengthen voting rights and move redistricting power from state legislatures to independent commissions. Pushing a democracy reform package will make this a centerpiece of national conversation and a key issue in 2020.

But this democracy reform package has no hope of becoming law while Republicans control the Senate and Trump occupies the White House. We do not have the time to wait. There’s no guarantee that we can retake power in 2020 if we don’t act now to advance voting rights and restore fundamental institutions of our democracy.

It will take more than just one election to undo decades of damage inflicted by Republican-controlled states. It will take a progressive strategy that focuses on flipping state legislatures and passing policies to save our democracy in the states.

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