State of Disunion


Saving Democracy Starts at the Local Level

Since the red wave of 2010, GOP state legislatures have ignored the will of the American people and bulldozed ahead with their agenda—which will have a devastating impact on Election 2024.

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This year, the victory of abortion rights in Ohio was a triumph of popular sentiment and representative democracy writ large. It took months of organizing for advocacy groups, concerned parents, patients and doctors, and thousands of highly motivated voters to generate the necessary turnout and margins to enshrine the right to reproductive autonomy into the state constitution. So it’s more than a little alarming that it took only hours for the state’s Republican legislature to declare their disregard for the voters’ decision.

Almost immediately after the results came in, the outrageously gerrymandered GOP majority in the statehouse announced their intention to scuttle any effort to enforce the hard-fought right now guaranteed by the state’s founding document. Despite nearly 60 percent of voting Ohioans agreeing otherwise, the state’s Republicans have begun tampering with judicial review, filing additional lawsuits, and attempting to find loopholes in the clear language of the submitted statute. This, after doing everything they could to frustrate and undermine voters in their effort to secure this right—including forcing a summer special election to change the threshold for voter-backed constitutional amendments from a simple majority to a supermajority and rewriting the ballot language to put the issue before the people in the least favorable light. If Ohio Republicans are failing to overturn the will of the people, it’s not because they’re not trying.

This is what a renegade legislature looks like: untethered from popular accountability and immune to widespread dissent simply by writing, or rewriting, their own rules. And while it’s bad enough this is happening in Ohio, what’s worse is that it’s not an isolated incident.

In 2010, we had a devastating midterm red wave that swept the Tea Party into Congress—and wiped out thousands of Democratic-held state legislative seats. The effect wasn’t just to hand the Obama-era GOP power to redraw federal congressional districts (the consequences of which we’re still unpacking), but to completely overhaul state legislative maps as well. With many GOP governors taking office, and legislatures helmed by extremists, state courts quickly followed, signing off on power grabs that have minimized or even nullified subsequent Democratic voting majorities at the state and local levels. The result has been distorted and impenetrable Republican legislative majorities in key states, built by packing Democratic constituencies into supermajority districts, removing voting access in opposition-rich areas, aggressive purging of rolls to prevent participation even for eligible voters, and onerous identification requirements to stymie the ones who show up. The aggregate effect is a breathtaking consolidation of power that has unmade the basic mechanics of functional representative government.

Simply: The power doesn’t reside in the People; it resides wherever GOP legislatures want it.

In some states furnished with Democratic governors—like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kentucky, and until October’s gubernatorial election, Louisiana—that locus of power is the legislature itself. But where Republicans have assistance in the form of governors and courts, there are almost no guardrails to any state authority—as long as the officeholder has an R next to their name. It is a despotic recasting to what had been representative government, requiring a nearly unprecedented margin for voters to even begin to chip away at the edifice of their suppression.

The consequences to this are both dire and predictable. Across the country, government has become corrupt and distorted at best, and ineffective and hollow at worst. In Texas, corrupt officials like Ken Paxton can openly and easily practice pay-for-play politics, abuse public trust, funnel public money to himself, disregard the needs of constituents and stay in office because a Republican legislature is never going to impeach a Republican Attorney General. In North Carolina, the defection of Tricia Cotham from the Democratic to Republican Party furnished the latter with a veto-proof supermajority, betraying the state party, the Democratic governor, and thousands of her constituents who had explicitly supported her because of her stated views. Kentucky’s legislature has attempted to remove the governor’s power of appointment, enshrined in their state constitution (along with the clear separation of powers), at Mitch McConnell’s urging. The law now states that Governor Andy Beshear may only appoint from a list that the legislature gives him. Earlier this year in the red state of Tennessee, lawmakers  suppressed gun safety advocacy from voters by shutting proceedings to the public and ejecting members who disagreed from the chamber, robbing their constituents of representation. In 2018, Florida’s legislature happily ignored a substantial increase in voting rights embedded in the state constitution via public referendum by simply refusing to enforce it, and then instituted a de-facto poll tax to eligible voters who attempt to enfranchise themselves.

In half the country, Republicans hold seats in excess of their presidential level vote in at least one of their chambers. In more than a dozen states, that holds true for both chambers, with notable standouts being Missouri, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia, Arizona, Texas, and, yes, Ohio—all places where presidential campaigns are more highly contested. And this is a generous, updated map: Only recently did Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota change to better reflect the actual consensus of Democratic and Republican voters in their states.

It’s not a coincidence that states where the Electoral College is most relevant have distorted legislative chambers; the recent emergence of the bonkers “independent state legislature” theory relies on the idea that state chambers can develop, pass, and enforce election rules in federal and state elections without constraint by governors, Congress, or even courts, and thus hand their electoral votes to whomever the (GOP) legislature sees fit. While this absolute mockery of election law was destroyed even by the coercive Roberts Court, 6-3, the efforts to crush popular dissent and authority at the state level persist with the same fervor and less oversight.

While Trump is often blamed for the more radical turn in the Republican Party, the 2010 change in state legislatures and all the consequences that have flowed from that predate Trump’s ascension to party leadership by years. The problem of authoritarianism in the GOP isn’t a top-down edict, imposed by a reckless and wild aberration; it’s the result of a base thirst for power, working its way up through local officials and state officeholders at the roots of the party infrastructure. This vicious despotism has seized control over not merely the mechanics of government, but the popular sovereignty that is supposed to power it.

In the Constitution, Article 4, Section 4 guarantees to every state in the union a republican—representative—form of government, but we’ve never asked what that actually means. As state legislatures diverge more and more from the sentiment and authority of the people they govern, the questions of what it means to be represented, what it feels like to have our voices heard and respected, what it takes to manage and have power in the governments that exercise authority over us become more important. 

Despite our national obsessions, we are being overridden and overwhelmed by the governments in our backyards. The path to securing our rights in 2024 and beyond rests less on the representatives we send to Washington and more with the representatives delivered to our state capitals. Voters in Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky defended the rights they fought hard to claim for themselves, while election machinery powers up in every state across this union ahead of federal elections. But the reality of power in our statehouses confirms what we have forgotten to be true: All politics is local.

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