Tuesday’s Verdict on Voter Suppression and Gerrymandering

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File

People gather around a "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4, a Florida initiative which restores voting rights to about 1.4 million returning citizens who have served their felony sentences.

While all eyes are on the new contours of Congress and the Trump tremors, the composition of state legislatures, governorships, and secretaries of state has changed significantly as well. The new landscape offers possibilities for a series of structural reforms in our democracy that can help change the game for the long haul.

In 2011, immediately following the Tea Party wave, Republicans in many states went to work to cement their political control. Extreme gerrymandering, attacks on labor unions, and efforts to limit the ability of people to vote were all part of their playbook. Those voter suppression efforts were highly visible in 2018. Gerrymandering certainly saved a number of Republican congressional seats, and barriers to voting and active voter discouragement had significant impact especially in Georgia, but also in Texas, Florida, and a number of other states.  

In the states where Democrats made gains, they should not and will not attempt to mirror these cynical efforts. But they should absolutely strike blows for a fair and fully inclusive democracy. The new map shows where the fights can be made, and where the organizations that make up a new pro-democracy movement can provide the policy agenda.

Prior to yesterday, Republicans controlled 31 legislatures fully, and had "trifectas" (both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office) in 25 states. Democrats, by contrast, controlled 13 legislatures and the District of Columbia, with just seven trifectas. In four states, partisan control of legislative houses was split. 

Today, though not fully finalized, the new map, while not the tsunami of change some had hoped for, has shifted significantly. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 301 seats flipped from Republican to Democratic. Democrats will now control 18 legislatures and D.C., with "trifectas" numbering 14. The new “trifecta” states are Maine, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, and New York. Since the Democrats’ legislative gains were primarily in states that were in the "split control" category pre-election, the Republicans only lost legislative control in two states: Minnesota (where one house flipped to the Democrats) and New Hampshire (where both houses flipped, but the Republican governor was re-elected). But Republicans’ "trifecta" control dropped to 21, and notably, in North Carolina, Republicans lost the supermajorities that have enabled them to push through major anti-democratic legislation even with a Democratic governor.

On the gubernatorial side, the Democrats gained seven seats, moving their governorship number to 23, three of them in states where the GOP has had full control of the state:  Wisconsin, Kansas, and Michigan. Republican governorships dropped by seven seats correspondingly, leaving 27 states with GOP governors. Of particular note is that no governorships flipped from blue to red, though Alaska went from independent to Republican. 

In summary, according to Wendy Underhill, the Redistricting and Elections Director at NCSL, “The Democrats made significant gains, though the 301 flipped seats are lower than the average of 400-plus losses in midterms by the party out of power. And the Republicans retain robust strength at the state level as well.”

It isn’t easy to assess the impact of partisan shifts among secretaries of state. Not all secretaries are elected; some are appointed by state legislatures or the governor, and not all secretaries are in charge of elections. However, a number of strong democracy advocates were elected in Michigan (Jocelyn Benson) and Colorado (Jena Griswold). Other strong advocates were re-elected in states around the country, including in states where the elections have strengthened reform possibilities, including Stephen Simon in Minnesota, Denise Merrill in Connecticut, and Maggie Toulouse Oliver in New Mexico.

Democracy was on the ballot in another dramatic way. It is notable how many pro-democracy election-related ballot initiatives were voted on Tuesday, and the results are impressive.  There were ballot initiatives passed in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and very likely Utah,that create independent redistricting commissions to draw the district lines in 2021. In Nevada and Michigan, automatic voter registration passed. The Michigan initiative also included same day registration, and Maryland voters approved SDR as well.  Several states passed modest initiatives on ethics and money in politics, strengthening ethics enforcement and disclosure of campaign contributions.

Most noteworthy was the overwhelming victory—with 65 percent of the vote—for Amendment 4 in Florida, which restores voting rights to about 1.4 million returning citizens who have served their felony sentences. The amendment had broad support, and the amazing campaign for its passage will change Florida politics forever.

Not every initiative was progress. It is important to note that both Arkansas and North Carolina passed initiatives cementing voter ID laws that restrict the vote. But on the whole, democracy was on the ballot in lots of places, and by substantial margins, citizens affirmed their support and concern for the ability of people to register, to vote and to have their votes count.

A map that offers opportunities doesn’t guarantee that democracy reforms will take place. There have been missed opportunities in the past. Today, however, there is an increasingly robust movement for democracy reforms, and the organizations in it have been preparing for this moment for quite a while. The movement has nothing resembling a centralized command structure, but there is broad consensus on the issues and increasing coordination of effort and strategy.  

A key component of the movement are groups with a membership base. Some have focused on democracy promotion for years, or even decades. Others are newer to this struggle, and reflect a welcome realization by the leaders of multi-issue organizations that democracy is a pre-condition for durable progressive advance. Later this month, for example, both Common Cause, with chapters in 30 states, and the Democracy Initiative, a coalition with 60 member organizations, are having gatherings to set an agenda for legislative sessions to come. African American and Latinx organizations, after major mobilization during the election, are focusing on strengthening voting rights looking forward. A consortium of activist groups—community, political, labor, civil rights, resistance—are forging a national collaboration that could advance enactable legislation in as many as 15 state legislatures next year. Dozens of state-based ‘tables’ and state and local organizations are poised to move forward after years of defense. 

One progressive leader who voices the common priority of these disparate groups is Dan Cantor, Chair of the Working Families Party and a long-time progressive organizer. “If we are to make progress on all the policies we so desperately need,” Cantor says, “it requires serious and enduring structural reforms of political rules. We need to ‘fix democracy first’.”

Several experienced policy shops will be contributing significantly to the discussion and to the legislative debates.  Demos and The Brennan Center for Justice both have strong state-based policy research and recommendations. The State Innovation Exchange, a kind of progressive counter to the better-known American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been working with legislators already.  

It’s an old cliché that states are—or can be—laboratories of democracy. In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, however, many of them can. There are no guarantees, and every policy change will be hard fought. But the possibilities are right in front of us, and the odds are better than they have been in a long while.

This article has been updated. 

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