With the 2020 census released last month, the draw for the legislative districts that could determine most of the control of Congress for the next decade goes to the state’s state legislatures, the heart of Republican political power.
Increasingly, state legislatures, particularly in 30 Republican-controlled states, have taken on an oversized role for themselves, pushing conservative agendas on elections, Covid-19, and the culture wars, which reinforce the party columns and go beyond politics shape their own limits.
Indeed, the state legislatures have become tremendous sources of influence and influence for a party in power in Washington. This is especially true of rural conservatives, who largely control the legislature in key states like Wisconsin, Texas, and Georgia and could now establish a strong Republican bias in Congress and cement their own power for the next decade. The Texas legislature’s pending approval of new election restrictions is just the latest example.
“This is really new in many ways because of the breadth and scope of what is happening,” said Donald F. Kettl, a government scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “But basically, the real point of the spear of Trumpism is showing up at the state and local levels. The state legislatures not only keep the flame alive, they feed and grow it. “
He added that the aggressive role of Republican lawmakers still had much to be done.
“There’s all this talk about whether or not Republicans are a party with a future,” he said, “but the reality is that Republicans are not only alive and well, but also in state legislatures. And they will drive more of it. “
The next battle, already underway in many states, concerns the drawing of congressional and legislative districts. The Republicans control 26 of the legislatures that will draw political maps, compared to 13 for the Democrats. (Other states have non-partisan commissions that form legislative districts or have only one seat.)
In the 18 states where they control the legislature, Democrats have taken on their own cause, passing laws to expand voting rights, raise minimum wages and tighten gun controls.
But Republican lawmakers have political and ideological goals that dwarf those of their opponents. This year’s legislative sessions have seen the largest wave of anti-abortion laws since the Roe v. Wade fired from the US Supreme Court in 1973. Many Republican parliaments have usurped power from Democratic cities and counties on issues such as police, coronavirus, and tree protection. They have put grassroots energizing issues like transgender rights and classroom teaching about races at the center of the debate.
Most importantly, they have rewritten electoral and electoral laws to largely obstruct democratic-minded voters and give Republicans more leverage over how elections are conducted – and critics tell how they are decided. And in some states, they are considering their own versions of the shameless partisan review of the 2020 Arizona Senate vote, a new and, for many, dangerous assault on the bipartisan basis of the American election.
One reason for the new activism is obvious: With Republicans not in power in Washington and Congress largely bogged down, States are the party’s main arenas for policy-making.
“I don’t know how long it has been since Congress even passed a budget,” said Bryan Hughes, a Republican senator who backed the latest Texas ballot bill. “So yes, the states have clearly assumed more responsibilities.”
Many Democratic MPs say Republicans are shirking this responsibility.
“We are one of four states with no pre-school education,” said State Representative Ilana Rubel, a Democrat from Idaho. “We have a major housing crisis. We have a real estate tax crisis. Those were the things we thought would be discussed. Instead, we found ourselves in a Fox News feverish dream that they only wanted to get into these man-made crises at the national level. “
The national role played by state legislatures reflects, in part, the division of Americans into opposing partisan camps. Thirty years ago, 15 of the 50 state legislatures were split between Republican and Democratic control. Today only the Minnesota House and Senate are divided.
And the system favors partiality. Few pay any attention to state assembly races, so roughly four out of ten seats nationwide are undisputed in general elections, said Gary Moncrief, a. Co-author of the standard work on state policy “Why States Matter”.
“That means the real decisions are made in the primaries,” he said, where voters tend to be hardliners.
At first glance, state assemblies seem ill-suited to exerting influence. Most are part-time affairs administered by civil lawmakers. But the image of the minor league is not quite deserved. State lawmakers control $ 2 trillion a year spending and have a range of issues, from prisons to schools to the opioid crisis, that can get lost in the rush of Washington politics.
And more and more top Republican strategists and well-funded conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have brought in money and resources and policy, thinking that laws that have no chance of getting through Congress are sailing through friendly state houses could.
“In my view, they have a far greater impact on the lives of ordinary people than Congress,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, of the state-level bodies.
If there is one area where state legislatures have the potential to shape the country’s policies well beyond established borders, it is voting.
Following the false claims made by former President Donald J. Trump about stolen elections, at least 18 states have tightened electoral rules, often in ways that affect most democratic constituencies.
Most importantly, they also gave the party more power over the mechanisms for holding elections and counting ballots.
Arkansas authorized the State Elections Board to investigate local elections and take “corrective action” on alleged irregularities, ostensibly to shake Republicans fairly. Iowa and other states would impose fines and even criminal penalties for missteps by local electoral officials, raising concerns that penalties could be used for partisan gain.
The Georgian legislature has given itself control of most of the appointments in the state electoral committee, allowing it to investigate and replace local electoral officials. Legislators are already looking to investigate Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold, although procedural hurdles in the law raise questions about how easily it could be used for partisan purposes.
Legislature has also given elected district commissioners sole power to appoint members of the local electoral board, a change that has already allowed at least 10 members of those boards to be removed, most of them Democrats.
Republicans say they want to prevent fraud and make sure elections go better. Many experts and most Democrats describe the laws as worrying given the efforts of GOP lawmakers and officials in at least 17 states to stop or overturn the election of President Biden and their continued demands for often partisan vote reviews of long-passed elections . Many fear that such failed tactics will be converted to success as early as 2024.
“This is the very last step towards an authoritarian system,” says Thomas E. Mann, co-author of two books on the consequences of the Republicans’ right-wing drift, “and they really want to get there.”
Georgia House Republican spokesman David Ralston dismissed it. Claims that his state’s laws open back doors to influence election results would amount to “hysteria”.
Compared to voting laws in democratic bastions like New York or Delaware, he said, “We’re way ahead of the game.” And while Republican fraud allegations dominated Georgia’s 2020 elections, he noted that electoral lawyer Stacey Abrams, who ran for Democrat, had also refused to accept her loss in the 2018 governor race, claiming voters were suppressed to have.
Legislators have also enforced laws that override or prohibit actions by local officials, generally urban Democrats. Targets included measures such as mask requirements and proposals to cut police budgets in response to the riots last summer.
Some see a brake on how far Republican lawmakers can go to the right.
Opponents are already bringing the latest Republican initiatives to justice. The federal Justice Department has sued blocking portions of Georgia’s new electoral law, warning that partisans who interfere in electoral reviews like the one in Arizona could violate federal law.
Democratic attorneys and proxies target other voting actions. And in some states, Democratic governors like North Carolina’s Roy Cooper act as a counterbalance to Republican lawmakers.
“This state would be very, very different if it weren’t for Roy Cooper’s governor,” said Christopher Cooper, a state policy scholar at Western Carolina University who is unrelated to the governor. “He has vetoed more bills than any governor in North Carolina history.”
Others doubt that vetoes and court decisions will settle much. “I don’t see any resolution in a lawsuit,” said Richard Briffault, a state lawyer at Columbia University. “If there is a change, it will be through the political process.”
And some say the legislature has the power to make policy and a base that indulges in what seemed like overwhelming a few years ago. Why should they stop?
“This has become the new normal,” said Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the Texas Democrats who fled the state in July to block the passage of the restrictive voting law. “And I would expect that with a Biden administration and a Democratic Congress we will probably see more.”
Nick Corasaniti contributed to the coverage.