November 1, 2017
It’s Time To Care About State Legislatures

Gaby Goldstein & Brooke Bullingtom

Democrats are a Majority of the Country, but They Have Very Little Electoral Power. To Understand How This is Possible, Look to the States.

Democrats won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes in the 2016 Presidential election. Despite being a majority of the population, Democrats don’t control the White House, executive agencies, the Senate, the House of Representatives, or anywhere close to a majority of state governments. As a result, regressive and harmful legislation continues to make its way through all levels of government.

How does the majority of the country have so little electoral power? It all comes back to the states. Here’s why you should care about state elections.

State Legislatures? Who Cares?

It’s time for state legislatures to get the credit and limelight they deserve. After a tumultuous political year, both Democrats and Republicans are looking toward state-level races to enact political change. We at Sister District focus on flipping state chambers blue and protecting fragile blue chambers. But why do we care so much?

1. State Laws Have a Huge Impact on Daily Life.

Though it is difficult to pass policy on a national level, state legislatures work hard. They make decisions on issues ranging from education, healthcare access, transportation, and the environment — all things that directly influence our daily lives, sometimes even more so than federal policy. Voters who want their voices to matter on key issues need to take to state-level ballots.

2. State Legislatures Often Control Districting.

State legislatures are in charge of redistricting in 37 states. In these states, the political party in power gets to re-draw both state and congressional voting district lines at least once per decade. If the lines are manipulated strategically –a process called gerrymandering — this can result in one party controlling a disproportionate number of seats. Redistricting will occur again in 2021 after the census. Right now, the GOP controls 69 out of 99 legislative chambers in the country. Democrats must win back state chambers to enact fairer redistricting in order to gain power in both the states and Congress.

3. State Laws Get Around.

Laws created in one state often spread to other states — so the policy enacted by one state legislature can impact decision-making across other states. The right wing and its shadowy corporate-backed groups have used this approach with incredible success. One of the most aggressive organizations behind this strategy is American Legislative Exchange Council (more background on ALEC below). Some examples include: 1) ALEC authored model legislation gutting minimum wage increases — repealing minimum wages above $7.25 and reducing overtime compensation — which has been introduced in 31 state legislatures and passed in 11; 2) ALEC-authored voter suppression laws spread through Texas, Wisconsin and Florida, impacting the outcomes of some 2012 elections; and 3) an abortion law that greatly limits access to abortion by requiring providers to have admittance privileges at nearby hospitals spread between Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana.

4. State Leaders Become National Leaders.

The officials we elect to state office often become the candidates who will eventually run for national office. President Obama, along with 21 other previous presidents (that’s basically half of all Presidents), started his political career as a state legislator. In our current Congress, 44 Senators and 220 House members formerly served as state legislators. If we grow progressive candidates at the state level, we can build a pipeline of high quality progressive folks with the experience and credentials to become national candidates.

5. State Laws Become National Laws.

State policies also serve as test cases, and later can become national policies after they are proven useful. For instance, the Affordable Care Act originated as Romneycare in Massachusetts in 2006, and after a few years of general success, the approach was used to create a national model.

Republicans Have a Secret — It’s State Legislatures:

Republicans have been successfully harnessing the power of state legislatures for decades using strategies including REDMAP and ALEC.

  • REDMAP. In 2010, the GOP executed a strategy called the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP). They set out to flip state legislatures red, with the explicit goal of gerrymandering state and congressional district lines in their own favor. It worked. In 2010, Republicans flipped 19 legislative bodies to Republican control.
  • ALEC. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a shadowy organization comprised of conservative state legislators and corporations that produces and disseminates model legislation to conservatives across the country. To be a part of the organization, members must buy in; corporations donate a minimum of seven thousand tax-deductible dollars, whereas legislators pay $50 a year. Members meet at conferences funded by private sector companies, in which they are divided into task forces that draft bills that are then proposed in state legislatures across the country.
  • Corporate Takeover. ALEC provides a platform for corporations to influence which policies are introduced to state legislatures. Private sector members — who essentially fund the entirety of organization — are given autonomy to veto draft template bills. As a result, most bills sponsored by ALEC are profit-driven and favor large corporations. For example, model legislation created to require the disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids allowed for the exemption of certain fluid contents, largely because the bill was drafted with ExxonMobil staff input.
  • Dark Policy Network. ALEC is a conservative network in which legislators can research policy before proposing it themselves. Because bills created by ALEC are templates, and can be modified on a state-by-state basis, legislators have the opportunity to examine the implementation of policy in other states, evaluate its success, and modify when necessary. About 200 ALEC bills are enacted across the nation every year. Successful ALEC bills can and do become adopted by many states, and have the potential to become national policy.

Democrats are Tardy to the State Legislative Party:

Founded in 2014, the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) is an organization that provides progressives with resources to shape policy and incorporate the power of grassroots movements. Like ALEC, SiX hosts a conference to bring together legislators from across the country to discuss ideas and compare policy on issues ranging from civil rights to supporting working families. Though Democrats are late to the game, SiX is a promising step toward Democratic focus on states.

All Democrats Need to Care about Virginia:

  • The Virginia state elections for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and all 100 House of Delegates are particularly important, as this election has the potential to send a clear message about how Virginians feel about the direction our country is taking.
  • In the House of Delegates, Democrats are at a significant disadvantage. Virginia has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three election cycles. Nonetheless, Republicans hold a majority — 66 to 34 — in the House of Delegates due to gerrymandering. The good news is that many districts are flippable. Hillary won 17 of the House of Delegate districts currently represented by a Republican, and many of those same seats have gone blue for multiple election cycles at the state and national levels.
  • In the past, the results of Virginia’s state elections have foreshadowed the results of national elections. Virginia went blue in 2008 for Obama, but in 2009 took a sharp turn right, just before the Republicans executed a wide-scale takeover of state legislatures across the country through REDMAP. If Virginia goes blue this year, it could be a good sign for 2018.

Virginians vote on November 7th — and Democrats everywhere need to care. In order to support progressive policy and leadership, it is vital that the Democratic Party wins back state legislatures across the country. Though national elections are often perceived as more important, it all starts at the state level. If we dedicate time and resources, flipping state legislatures is a very achievable — and strategically valuable — goal.