Perhaps nothing highlights the importance of local and state governments more than the coronavirus pandemic. In the absence of federal leadership, state and local officials have largely led the government response. Governors have become household names, as we’ve followed their harrowing efforts to procure supplies – often in secret to elude seizure by the federal government, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan escorting the testing kits his state bought from South Korea with both the National Guard and the state police and Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts using the New England Patriots’ plane to bring in N95 masks from China. At the local level, mayors and county officials pioneered the Coronavirus response even before states made statewide orders, like Flagstaff in Arizona, where current Mayor and State House candidate Coral Evans was the first mayor in the state to close down bars and eliminate dining in at restaurants shortly after the pandemic was declared.
And state legislatures, often overlooked by the public’s eye, have greenlit millions in disaster spending, bolstering the ability to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline workers, and providing critical financial relief to people and businesses including through eviction moratoria and utility bill relief.
Historically, state and local leaders have toiled in obscurity.
Suddenly, names that were unknown to many of their own constituents months ago, and actions typically taken in obscurity, are being discussed in the national news.
State and local races typically receive far less attention and far fewer resources than their federal counterparts. This obscurity has, in the past, allowed strategic political players to mount stealth attacks. A notorious example occurred in 2010, when Republicans memorably flipped 20 state legislative chambers in project “REDMAP.” Democrats were caught sleeping, focusing most of their time and attention on federal races instead of state and local ones. That shift in state legislative power allowed GOP-controlled state legislatures to Gerrymander state and congressional districts to hell and back, ensuring their party’s electoral advantage for the next decade.
Ever since, state and local races have remained largely low profile, especially since Federal races are usually on the same ballot. But with an increasing focus on the actions of Governors, state legislators and local electeds, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court that may punt important issues like reproductive rights back to the states, and a diminished ability to rely on aid from a gridlocked federal government, have voting-aged Americans altered their perceptions of the importance of state and local governments? Many data points suggest yes.
Coronavirus and redistricting have awakened the public’s awareness of the importance of state government
In their May 12, 2020 report, Navigator found that the majority of Americans (58%) said that they trusted their state and local government to handle the government’s response to coronavirus better than Trump and the federal government (28%).
Civiqs polling has also found that that people have been more satisfied with their state and local government, in general. As of August 30, 2020, 54% of registered voters reported that they are satisfied with their local government’s response, while a whopping 60% of registered voters are not satisfied with the federal government’s response as of the same date.
Further, this is a redistricting year – whoever is elected to state legislatures this year will draw the lines in most states, and those lines will last another decade. Plus, everyone hates gerrymandering, which is entirely the product of state legislatures. But while gerrymandering and districting were once thought to be too wonky to capture the public’s attention, things have changed. With the formation of organizations like the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) aimed at combatting gerrymandered districts, and recent high profile court cases over the ways gerrymandering specifically suppresses minority votes in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, voters seem to be more concerned than every about how congressional and state legislative lines are drawn
The pandemic has shifted opinions of importance of state and local officials
Our organization, Sister District Action Network (SDAN) explored opinions about state and local government officials by including questions about state legislatures in a nationally representative survey of US adults run by a progressive partner organization from May 26-June 3, 2020 (n = 2,524).
Nearly half of folks from across the political spectrum (41%) reported that the Coronavirus had increased their understanding of how important state and local elected officials are. This shift was more pronounced among left-leaning folks, with 51% of liberals and Democrats stating that they have increased their estimation of the importance of state and local officials since the onset of the coronavirus.
The percentage of people whose estimation of the importance of state and local governments shifted the most also increased with age, indicating that people 65+ were the most likely to have increased their views of local and state official importance since before the pandemic (31%). Since odds of voter turnout increase with age, this indicates that the most likely voters (in terms of age) are more attuned to the importance of state and local races than they were at the beginning of 2020.
Regardless of political affiliation, people know state legislatures impact them
In response to a question asking if the decisions of the state legislature impact daily life, the vast majority of respondents (85%) responded affirmatively. Interestingly, voters across the political spectrum acknowledge the importance of state legislatures, with Liberals (85%), Democrats (86%), conservatives (82%), and Republicans (85%) all feeling that the state legislature impacts their lives.
Volunteers are ‘getting’ it too, in addition to voters
As Sister District, we recognize how important state legislatures are, and so do our 45,000 volunteers across the US. In May 2020, we fielded a volunteer survey to better understand the ways in which the coronavirus might impact their volunteerism in 2020. Interestingly, volunteers actually reported intentions to increase their level of involvement in all Sister District volunteer activities compared to 2019. And about half reported one of their main motivations to volunteer for Sister District was to address gerrymandering before 2021 redistricting. With increased enthusiasm on the organizing side and with left-leaning voters becoming more aware of how important state legislatures are, 2020 is poised to be the year Democrats take back state legislatures.