States Matter: Why Care About State Legislatures Now?

A lot is tugging at our attention. Let's all add state legislatures to our radar.

11 mins read

In politics, there is so much pulling at our attention and wallets. Clearly, the national news is an epic trash fire spectacle.  And the wide Democratic presidential field keeps our attention up ballot. But we have to tear our gaze away from these national issues and look down ballot. To get into the long game of building progressive power, we have to focus on state legislatures. And we have to do it right now.

Here’s why we all need to add state legislatures to our radar, and mix advocacy at the state level into our volunteering and donation portfolios:

1. Redistricting Is Coming – Look Busy! 

In 37 states, the state legislature is primarily responsible for redistricting. It might sound nuts, but in these states, the legislature gets to redraw state and congressional voting district lines, once per decade. If the lines are manipulated strategically in favor of the party in power (“gerrymandering”), that party then gets to control a disproportionate number of seats. For… the… next… decade. By the way, if it sounds crazy to allow politicians to choose their voters, it is. We’re the only industrialized nation on the planet that does things this way.

Democrats are tardy to the party when it comes to understanding the importance of state legislatures in redistricting. Republicans have been on this game for decades. After their evil genius REDMAP strategy, Democrats lost 20 state legislative chambers on election night in 2010, giving Republicans control of 53 state chambers across the country. They promptly redrew state and congressional maps in a way that favored themselves, locking in their power unfairly.  The good news is that redistricting is coming up again fast — this year and next, most seats in most state legislative chambers will be up for election. That means that in state races across the country, whoever is elected this year and next will be in office to draw the next maps lasting until 2030. It’s time for us all to get crackin’.

2. The Constitutional Buck (Increasingly) Stops with States.

Another important reason to care about state legislatures is that they — rather than the federal government — are increasingly deciding the issues that affect us most. I think there’s a bit of a fetishization of federal policy in a lot of areas. Progressives love the idea of sweet blankets of protective federal policy that stretches from coast to coast. And don’t get me wrong. Federal policy is great.  But the reality is that, short of a Supreme Court-packing scheme, more is going to fall to states to decide. The high water mark of protective federal policy was probably in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, there has been a slow retrenchment of federal protections, which has begun to crescendo with the recent rightward lurch of the Supreme Court.  Access to health care, education, and the ballot box are just a few areas that will increasingly be decided by states. Progressives must embrace the reality that fighting for federal protections and fighting for state-level protections are not mutually exclusive strategies. We must embrace a state-based strategy to advance and protect rights. As explained below, this strategy can lay the foundation for national policy, too. 

3. Put That In Your Pipe(line)

Finally, we have to focus on state legislatures because they are, in Justice Brandeis’ words, the ‘laboratories’ of democracy. They contain our policy and leadership pipelines. 

State laws are like viruses — the laws created in one often spread to others (academics and wonks call this ‘policy diffusion’). Sometimes, laws diffuse from state-to-state, and eventually, from the states to federal law (particularly when a majority of states have passed a law first). 

The right wing and its corporate-backed dark money groups are absolute masters at diffusing their regressive policies across states. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization comprised of conservative state legislators and corporate interests, uses state policy as a vector to infect states with conservative laws. Some ALEC-authored copycat legislation greatest hits that have spread across states include laws gutting minimum wage increases and anti-immigration laws. On the other hand, a few progressive or ‘public good’ state policies have spread in areas like climate policy and drug pricing. Progressives need to be much, much more aggressive and strategic about transferring ‘public good’ laws across states. This will allow us to make the case that proven state laws are ready for ‘prime time’ as federal laws, when a policy window opens for us in the future.  To build toward a state-based policy strategy, we’ll need more progressive state legislative majorities, incubating more public good policies.

In addition, state legislatures are a great training ground for our future national leaders. Nearly half of all presidents (including Barack Obama) and congresspeople started as state legislators. As you might have heard, Democrats lost a whopping 1,000 state legislative seats during the Obama years (there are about 7,400 total state legislative seats in the US). Those are a thousand Democrats who now aren’t in the pipeline for higher office. Our bench has been decimated, and to rebuild a deep bench of progressive leaders with governance chops, we have to focus on electing more Democrats to state legislatures. 

Activism is Not Zero Sum:
We Can All Add State Legislatures Into Our Activism Mix

Look, we all know there are going to be some big ticket things to care about in 2020 (ahem…). The good news is that activism is not zero sumWe can all mix a bit of state legislative advocacy into the array of stuff we volunteer for and donate to.  A little goes a very long way in these races, which have budgets and win numbers that are a fraction of the size of statewide or federal races. We all just have to pitch in a little bit.

This year, the entire state legislatures are up in Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana.  Democrats in Virginia have a great shot to flip the entire general assembly blue this year (down just 2 seats in each chamber!). And Democrats in Mississippi and Louisiana have opportunities to break and stave off Republican supermajorities, respectively. Next year, Democrats have the chance to flip a slew of chambers blue in critical battleground states (including TX and PA), as well as make critical inroads ahead of redistricting in other key battlegrounds like WI and FL. 

There Are Lots of Ways to Pitch In

It’s not too late for 2019. My organization, Sister District, is supporting 16 candidates in VA, LA and MS. You can learn more about them, and donate to our 2019 slate.  All funds donated go directly to the candidates; Sister District does not take any cut.  

Join A Sister District Team.  When you sign up with Sister District, you’ll be automatically routed to your nearest team, and given opportunities to volunteer. We have about 75 teams across the country, and each one is working hard to elect our endorsed candidates. You can canvass, phonebank, textbank, and postcard. If you prefer to do those activities on your own rather than with your team, we can get you rolling too.  

Be an Affiliate. And if you’re already part of a different volunteer group that might like to take on some Sister District activities, that’s great too. We’ve got affiliate groups all across the country, including Indivisible and Together We Will teams, Women’s March huddles, and local Democratic clubs.  Feel free to email us if you have any questions about how to get involved – info at sisterdistrict dot com. Taking on Sister District actions as an affiliate is a great way for existing groups to add in some state legislative elections work into their existing activism mix! 

We’ve got 1 day until the Louisiana jungle election, 25 days until Virginia and Mississippi elections, and 388 days until the 2020 elections. Time to get fired up for state legislatures!

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Gaby Goldstein is Co-Founder and Political Director at Sister District Project, and Director of Research at Sister District Action Network. Sister District’s mission is to build Democratic majorities in state legislatures, raise awareness about the importance of state legislatures, and facilitate progressive policy transfer between legislators and states.

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