Democrats: Focus on Statehouses

ADAM GINSBURG: Let’s face it: National politics are sexy. 

 National political campaigns, which often serve to gauge public approval of a politician or a particular hot-button policy, attract the attention, imagination, and dollars of a captivated populace.  Through unceasing national media coverage, we come to know candidates on a first name or acronymic basis: Beto, Bernie, AOC, Mitch, Donald, Hillary.  

Of course, there is a reason why the voting public — and, by extension, the media — focuses on these candidates: they are charismatic, running for influential and public-facing positions, and often provide a litmus test for our values and beliefs. 

But this fixation on national candidates and their personalities, while fun and — to an extent — meaningful, ultimately diverts attention from the place where policy that truly affects people’s lives is enacted: statehouses.

The dealings of state legislatures are often mundane and boring to cover.  After all, there is no glamor in fighting over property tax caps and public employee pensions. 

Yet it is in these statehouses where policies that affect our lives everyday — pensions, property taxes, and many more like juvenile detention, health care rollout, weapons restrictions, and voting rights — are often decided. And it is statehouses where Democrats should be focusing substantial attention in 2020 if they want to effect meaningful and lasting change in our country.

Over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats losta total of 816 legislative seats, 13 governorships, and control of 14 state legislatures. These disheartening losses hampered Democrats’ ability to implement some progressive policies the national party supported, like expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, stringent background checks on gun purchases, and protections for abortion. 

Most alarmingly, the large Republican-friendly swing in state legislatures allowed those legislatures to control the statewide and congressional redistricting process (in the 31 states that have such a policy), leading to disenfranchisement of voters and entrenchment of current inequities in voting power.

If the Democrats truly want to combat gerrymandering’s nefarious effects, they need to be in control of more statehouses after the 2020 census concludes. That means focusing on those elections in the 2020 race.

Besides gerrymandering reform, if Democrats want to enact other voting rights enhancements like those seen in House Bill H.R. 1, they have further incentive to take back statehouses. Because of the partisan gridlock in Washington, Democrats will likely need to hold the presidency, the House, and the Senate to pass it. Despite a nationwide map that is relatively favorable to Democrats in 2020, such a prospect would still require many pieces to fall correctly into place. Furthermore, many of the rules for election procedures and voter registration have traditionally fallen under the purview of state legislatures.

It may, therefore, be simpler in the short term to take back statehouses, enact voting reform there, and then translate that success to the national level.

Take New York for example. 

Before this year, New York, despite its progressive bona fides, actually had some of the most restrictive and disenfranchisement-friendly voting lawsin the country. In the 2018 elections, however, upstart progressives were able to primary and defeat their centrist or Republican status-quo maintainers from office. Then, they used their first days in office to pass a series of reforms—including a package of voting rights innovationsthat will revolutionize how New York voters participate in our republic. 

This example perfectly illustrates the power statehouses wield over our laws and why they matter so much.

Statehouses are where redistricting fights will take place after the 2020 census. It is where, in a majority of states that allow legislatures to draw or sign off on congressional maps, gerrymandering will take place. It is also the place where a majority of policy that will affect the average citizen will be enacted. 

Democrats need to fight to win them in 2020. Winning statehouses might not be sexy, but it sure is necessary for Democrats to implement their progressive agenda.

Jeff Cirillo