The long-term health of American democracy is in peril, to a degree far worse than people imagine. But not where most people are looking.
While many eyes go to Washington DC or Mar-a-Lago, the attack on democracy is actually most concentrated and coordinated in state capitals. Whether it’s gerrymandering or voter suppression or attacks on offices that provide needed checks and balances – the states have become widely undemocratic. As I outline in my book Laboratories of Autocracy, the consequences of this anti-democratic movement are only getting worse.
The past decade in Ohio, where I served in recent years as chair of the state Democratic party, shows how bad it can get – and how quickly.
When Fox News called Ohio for Barack Obama in 2012, it meant he’d be president for another term. Ohio’s Democratic senator Sherrod Brown also won handily that night. But how did these victories in America’s bellwether state translate at the congressional level?
Not at all.
Even though it was Democratic in 2012, a state that only four years ago had sent 10 Democrats to the US House of Representatives and eight Republicans, now sent 12 Republicans to the House and only four Democrats.
2014 was a big year for Republicans. They won decisively for statewide offices. The congressional delegation? 12-4. 2016? Another Republican year: 12-4. But in 2018, Sherrod Brown won again, this time by almost seven points. And many of his voters also voted for a Democrat running for the House. In all, 47% of Ohioans cast a vote for the Democratic candidate for the House, while 52% voted for the Republican.
What was the outcome of that 52-47 split for Ohio’s congressional delegation? 12-4 again – 75% Republican.
2020? 12-4 again.
So for an entire decade, whether Ohio voters tilted to Democratic or to Republican or a toss-up, when it came to Congress, nothing changed. The makeup was the exact same 12-4 split no matter how the voters voted. In the world’s oldest democracy, the voters basically didn’t matter.
Why is that?
Because in Ohio in 2011, in a secret hotel room they called “the bunker”, a small group of partisan insiders designed House district maps to guarantee the outcome of all 90 US House elections that were to follow in the coming decade. And they proved to be so good at their work, they got all 90 elections right.
It’s a success rate in rigging election outcomes – amid the appearance of a democratic process – that Vladimir Putin would admire. Sadly, Ohio isn’t alone. Numerous other American states experienced the same decade of guaranteed outcomes for both their US House delegations and their state-level legislatures.
In some cases, even when a majority of voters voted for one party to be in charge, the rigged districts meant that the losing party remained in charge. In Michigan, in 2018, voters chose Democrats over Republicans for their statehouse by 52%-47%. Nevertheless, this led to a Republican majority in that statehouse of 58-52. In Wisconsin, losing the popular vote for the statehouse across the state by a 54-45 gave Republicans a 63-36 supermajority in that statehouse. Now that would truly impress a foreign autocrat – a system locking a minority into power despite a clear mandate by the voters that they wanted the opposite.
The prime culprits behind all this election rigging are the statehouses themselves – mostly anonymous elected officials who few voters know but who wield far more power than most Americans appreciate. And that includes the power to draw the district lines of both federal and state representatives (ie their own districts), as well as establishing most of the other rules of how elections are run, including how presidential electors are divvied up.
But it all gets worse. Fast-forward to now. Outraged by a decade of rigged elections, citizens in Ohio and other states took action to change the process of how lines are drawn. Some opted for independent districting commissions. In Ohio, more than 70% of the voters amended the Ohio constitution (twice!) to add clear guidelines to curb the type of extreme partisan districting that led to a decade without democracy.
And how have those in charge responded? Knowing that fair districts and robust democracy threaten their grip on power, the legislative leaders are simply ignoring the new rules. Defying them. In fact, the first map they have proposed here in Ohio would guarantee an astonishing 13-2 map, knowing full well that Ohio’s partisan breakdown would best be reflected by an 8-7 map. Despite the new rules, key urban counties are now being split three ways rather than two to achieve that outrageous result.
So not only are these unknown politicians willing to rig elections, they are willing to defy their own state constitution – and the voted will of more than 70% of their own population – to get it done.
As bad as this example is, it’s only one of the many fronts in a nationwide attack on democracy. Locked into power in these statehouses are a generation of politicians who themselves largely got there absent any true democracy – because they also benefited from rigged maps – who are now doing all they can to maintain that power. And one thing they know for sure: the greatest threat to their hold on power is robust democracy.
Since they write the rules, they have the ability to hold that risk at bay, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, cracking down on protests, attacking independent courts and officials that get in the way, and other measures – and they are taking all these actions and more across the country right now.
The truth is, if another country were taking all these steps, we’d call it out for what it is – an attack on democracy itself. A descent toward autocracy. But because it’s happening in our own state capitols, we too often treat it with less urgency. That needs to end.
It’s time to go on offense for democracy, at the state level, every year. Beginning now.