As the Democratic presidential primary heats up, Americans are obsessing over every headline, every tweet, and every possible detail related to the 2020 presidential election. While this race is important—and should command attention—it’s not the only upcoming election with serious, long-term consequences.
This November, 538 state legislative seats are up for election, and another 4,798 state legislative seats are up for grabs in November 2020. Within the next two years, 14 gubernatorial seats will be decided. After losing over nearly 1,000 state seats in the Obama era, Democrats cannot achieve widespread political dominance without flipping these state legislative seats from red to blue.
Many Americans don’t recognize the power of state legislatures. Along with controlling whether or not we have a democratic voting system, state legislatures determine funding for education, health care access, and abortion rights. They decide what the minimum wage should be, and if individuals can carry guns. And, with the addition of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, states are the last line of defense to safeguard reproductive rights, environmental protections, and keep dark money out of politics.
In GOP-controlled states, lawmakers have passed a slew of terrifying, extremist legislation that have damaged the lives of millions of Americans. For example, in 2019 thus far, nine states have passed laws prohibiting abortion or greatly decreased access to the procedure. Laws like the “heartbeat bill” have forced individuals to travel miles away from home and put their lives at risk to obtain basic healthcare access, all thanks to Republican controlled state legislatures.
But that’s only the beginning. In terms of gun control, GOP-held states have done nothing to protect their constituents against violence, even in light of horrific mass shootings. After the mass shooting at Virginia Beach that took 12 innocent lives, the Virginia GOP ended a special session on gun violence prevention without voting on a single piece of legislation. Similarly, after the El Paso shooting, instead of beefing up its gun regulations, Texas’ GOP-held state legislature actually weakened its gun laws. As of Sept. 1, Texas allows individuals to transport and store guns on school grounds, permits gun storage in foster homes, and bans landlords from including “no firearms” clauses in their leases.
It looks even worse for voting rights. Last year, Floridians overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restored access to the ballot box to over 1.4 million formerly incarcerated individuals. But instead of adhering to the will of the people, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and GOP state lawmakers passed a modern poll tax that limits voting rights restorations by excluding those who haven’t paid fines or court fees related to their sentences.
Believe it or not, these are only a tiny fraction of the horrible actions and pieces of legislation taking place at the state level.
In Democratic states, however, things look very different. Democratic-controlled state legislatures have passed progressive, inspiring legislation like automatic voter registration, pro-choice and LGBT protections, groundbreaking climate regulations, and effective gun violence prevention legislation. After Democrats flipped Maine’s state legislature last November, the state expanded abortion access by allowing all insurance providers—plus Medicare—to cover the procedure. The same happened in New York; after electing a progressive state legislature, within the first 30 days of its first session the state expanded abortion access.
Democratic state legislatures have also passed sweeping gun safety legislation that has protected millions of Americans from violence. As Giffords Courage states, after the mass shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Connecticut overhauled its gun laws and currently has one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation. Similarly, California has some of the most comprehensive gun violence prevention laws in the country. Since 2018, no one under 21 years old can buy rifles or shotguns, and anyone convicted of certain domestic violence charges will face a lifetime ban on gun ownership.
But the legislation that comes out of state houses is not the only repercussion of state elections. In 2021, state legislatures will draw new district maps that will determine state and congressional power for the next decade. The last time the stakes were this high was in 2010, when Republicans rode the Tea Party wave to victory and flipped 681 state seats from blue to red. These Republican majorities in state legislatures across the country drew gerrymandered maps that systematically disenfranchised swaths of Democratic voters, especially voters of color.
These intentionally unfair, discriminatory maps have led to Republican congressional victories that are grossly disproportionate to their vote share. For example, in one of the most egregious gerrymanders in the country, the North Carolina GOP barely achieved a narrow 51 percent majority of all votes cast for congressional seats, but still won 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats. This problem is not unique to North Carolina. In 2018, Democrats in Wisconsin won a majority of the vote—54 percent—but only three of the eight congressional seats. In Ohio, Democrats won 50 percent of the vote but only 4 of the 16 congressional seats.
While an obvious solution to blocking gerrymandering would be through the judiciary, this route is becoming less and less feasible. In a high profile case last June, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled along party lines that federal courts do not have jurisdiction over state maps, and are thus powerless in defending against gerrymandering.
Nonetheless, several states have given us reason for hope regarding the future of redistricting. Eight states already have implemented independent redistricting commissions, and many Democratic state legislative candidates are running on a platform of supporting the relinquishment of power to draw maps to independent commissions made up of political outsiders. However, these commissions still face fierce opposition from Republicans. In Michigan, a 2018 measure to appoint an independent redistricting commission passed, but Republican state lawmakers have filed a baseless lawsuit arguing that excluding political actors is unconstitutional.
Despite the tremendous power and impact of state legislative races, they’re much less expensive than federal races. Many state legislative races cost less than one-tenth as much as congressional races. Research conducted by Future Now Fund, a Political Action Committee that works exclusively on state races, found that it often costs less to flip entire chambers of state legislatures than to win just one competitive congressional seat. In fact, Future Now Fund estimates that it would likely take only $100,000 to flip the entire Montana House of Representatives. This stands in stark contrast to congressional races, which can cost up to $20 million in the most competitive districts.
Luckily, there’s been some momentum as Democrats are finally realizing the importance of state legislatures. Groups like Future Now Fund, Flippable, Forward Majority, and the People PAC—all of which started after 2016—have drawn much more attention and funds to these races. Despite these gains, PACs raising money for federal races dramatically outpace these groups.
Yes, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s a battle worth fighting for. If we really want to save our democracy, it’s time we look to the states.
Kaye Dyja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kaye is a member of the class of 2020.
Charlie Hills can be reached at email@example.com. Charlie is a member of the class of 2020.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Montana legislature when the authors meant the Montana House of Representatives.