As Dave Daley and I wrote recently for an op ed in The Hill, the public health and economic crises created by COVID-19 have the potential to cause a full-blown crisis for democracy. That is because the 2020 elections—from the top all the way down ballot—will have reverberations that will last a full decade.
Our best line of defense against the collapse of democracy is to fight back in the states, for the states—now.
1. Why States Matter—Now More Than Ever
This pandemic has demonstrated the awesome power of state officials—governors, state legislators, and state agencies. While a main media focus has been on the federal government’s slow, hampered response to the novel coronavirus, we’ve seen states jump in to respond. This international pandemic is showing us why states matter, on a daily basis.
Under the US Constitution’s 10th Amendment, state governments have historically had significant responsibility over the public’s health as part of their police powers. Certainly the federal government carries out important public health functions through regulatory agencies like FDA, and non-regulatory agencies like CDC. But a tremendous number of public health rules—and their effective implementation—are set and exercised by states.
In the past weeks we’ve seen governors using their emergency powers to extend pharmacies’ authority to fill prescriptions, allow nurses and doctors from other states to work in the state, and delay tax filings and waive waiting periods for disability insurance coverage and unemployment benefits. And we’ve seen state legislators introduce (and pass) emergency legislation to prohibit price gouging, reduce testing costs, expand access to telehealth, and make sure that workers under quarantine—both public and private sector workers—don’t lose their jobs.
We’ve also seen state electeds use their voice to push other state officials and private sector stakeholders to act in the public’s interest, including pushing for insurance companies to cover testing and treatment, and for employers to provide wages to ill workers. They are also serving as trusted disseminators of information, and advocates for those who are hit hardest and least likely to have political power to protect themselves—including low wage workers and those who are under- and uninsured.
Finally, it’s important to remember that this pandemic will end. And when it does, the road to recovery will run through the states. Many of the folks we elect this year will not just draw the new district lines—they will also be at the frontlines of their states’ recovery, stabilizing and expanding their states’ economies, reopening schools and businesses, and, hopefully, building up their public health infrastructure to alleviate inequalities in the health delivery system and better prepare for future pandemics.
2. The Road to Democratic Power Has Gotten Steeper.
Building Name Recognition and Cutting Through the Noise to Reach Voters.
Running for state legislature is rarely a marquee political contest. It’s always a struggle for these folks to reach voters through media channels, including earned media—except for local reporters, it’s rare for journalists to be interested in state legislative races. In a presidential year, it’s even harder for down-ballot candidates to ‘cut through the noise’ in the loud media environment to reach voters. Typically, down-ballot candidates rely instead on personal contact, and build relationships with voters in their communities directly.
But with the addition of the global coronavirus pandemic rightfully taking up air and attention, coupled with the inability for down-ballot candidates to knock on voters’ doors or meet them in the community for events for the foreseeable future, the road for candidates has gotten incredibly tough.
Reaching voters will be harder than ever before—we can help by providing our grassroots power to call voters, send postcards, text messages, and by amplifying our candidates’ messages through social media.
Fundraising Will Be Tougher than Ever.
Raising the funds necessary to run for office is rarely easy, unless you’re a self-funded Republican millionaire. And it’s always especially challenging in presidential years, when many donors are just focused on giving at the top of the ticket. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made fundraising even harder for down-ballot candidates. Donors—large and small—who may have given to candidates in the past may be feeling the effects of the economic crisis in their wallets, and may not be in a position to give. And as many Democratic candidates have shifted their campaigns away from campaign-related communications toward instead communicating with their community to keep them safe and share important information, fundraising asks have taken a backseat. Finally, fundraising messaging at this moment is a challenge for candidates, who do not want to have to ask for donations at this delicate time but are literally unable to keep the lights on without them.
Raising enough money to compete this year will be a daunting task for our candidates. We can help by providing them with small-dollar donations that we know can make or break their races. We can also tap into our networks to significantly expand their fundraising reach. And by making fundraising asks on their behalf, we help our candidates focus on reaching voters to share information and be a resource to keep their communities safe.
Voter Education Will Be Tough.
Even before getting to the “why” a voter should turn out, voters have to know when, where, and how to vote. Those logistics and basic facts about elections are in flux because of the pandemic. Primary election dates are changing; polling places are changing; voter registration deadlines are changing; vote by mail and absentee rules are changing.
Educating voters will be a challenge that candidates will need to meet—and we can help by reaching voters and giving them the correct information they’ll need in order to register and turn out to vote.
The fight for our democracy this November was never going to be easy. But so much is on the line—redistricting, which will last the next decade, voting rights, and the implementation of pandemic disaster relief and economic recovery. It all runs through states, and it impacts us wherever we are. We can help—decisively—by supporting our candidates this year.