Democrats had a great week. Here’s what we do now.
It’s time to get to work.
It was a good week for Democrats — a very good week.
To date, House Democrats have now picked up a total of 30 seats, and it’s expected that they will pick up even more as the final votes are counted and the races are called. Cook Political Report’s House editor Dave Wasserman wrote Friday that the final result is likely to be “closer to 40 than 30,” which would be the largest gain in Democratic House seats since Watergate.
Democrats also made huge strides at the state level. According to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, 372 state legislative seats flipped from Republican to Democratic on Tuesday night, though some votes are still being counted. And come January, the majority of state attorneys general will be Democrats, which could prove crucial in future battles over everything from healthcare to voting rights.
On top of that, Democrats racked up victories in key gubernatorial races across the country, including many in the same states that propelled Trump to victory just two years ago. In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, handing Democrats a crucial win in a state that proved critical to Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016. Democrats also won the races for governor in Michigan and Pennsylvania — two other states that Trump won in 2016 — and flipped the Illinois governorship to blue.
Clearly, Democrats have good reason to celebrate.
But even more than that, Democrats have good reason to get to work. The midterm elections showed that our democratic process isn’t broken, yet they also revealed just how hard Republicans are working to skew the system — and how much voters want to repair, reform, and improve it.
America’s democracy has been in a state of decline for years, with low voter turnout, voter suppression tactics, and gerrymandering hijacking our electoral process. Republicans know their policies aren’t favored by the majority of Americans, but instead of changing their policies, they’ve tried to change the voting process and the composition of the voting populace.
Now, two years after losing to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, Trump stumbled into midterm elections as the most unpopular president in modern history. Clearly, Americans don’t want what the GOP is offering — so the GOP has responded by making it harder for those Americans to participate in our democratic process.
And in many ways, it’s been working: In 2014, voter turnout in the midterm elections hit a 74-year low. Just over one-third of the eligible voting population cast a ballot that year, which is only slightly lower than the average of 40 percent voter turnout during 2002, 2006, and 2010 midterms. As a result, neither the House nor Senate has gone with the popular vote consistently for over a decade. This means that even though most Americans support Democratic candidates, ideas, policies, and platforms at the ballot box, Republicans have often ended up winning elections.
These undemocratic outcomes are largely the product of intentional efforts to tip the scale in favor of Republicans. Chief among the tactics used by Republicans are gerrymandering and voter suppression, both of which make it harder for voters to participate in the democratic process and effectuate change at the ballot box.
Meanwhile, emerging threats to election security remain largely unaddressed under the Trump administration, leaving the integrity of our democracy in question.
That’s why we need to look ahead now. There are no permanent victories — or losses — in politics. If we want to turn our midterm victories into long-term results, we need to address the problems that got us here in the first place.
Gerrymandering is a process involving redrawing electoral boundaries to favor one political party over the other. While it varies somewhat from district to district, gerrymandering tends to favor Republicans more than Democrats.
The problem was compounded in 2010, when Republicans were in charge of redrawing congressional districts in key battleground states like Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Virginia — all of which turned solid red after they were redrawn.
Ultimately, gerrymandering exacerbates the issues that make our representative democracy not-so-representative for much of the country. For example, when it comes to Senate elections, voters in the smallest states in America have approximately 68 times the political power of those in the largest states.
This produces outcomes like we saw in 2012, when Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans did, but Republicans controlled 33 more House seats.
And 2012 wasn’t a fluke. According to a 2017 analysis conducted by the Associated Press, there are four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or Assembly districts than Democratic-skewed ones. The AP analysis concluded that even if Democrats voted in larger numbers than Republicans, their chances of substantial legislative gains at the ballot box would still be severely hampered by gerrymandering — a finding that makes this week’s midterm victories all the more impressive.
Other analyses have reached similar conclusions. A 2017 study from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law analyzed the impact of gerrymandering on congressional elections from 2012 to 2016, and found a persistent Republican advantage and “clear evidence that aggressive gerrymandering is distorting the nation’s congressional maps.”
“The rise of extreme gerrymandering, enabled by more accurate political data and better map-drawing software, seems poised to continue if left unchecked, allowing parties to manipulate maps to lock in a guaranteed artificial advantage for themselves,” the report concluded. “The threat to democracy is both real and alarming.”
Indeed, it is. And that’s why it’s critical for Democrats to use the gains achieved this week to reform redistricting at the state level, and to call attention to unfair and undemocratic gerrymandering ahead of the 2021 redrawing of congressional districts. As the Brennan Center report pointed out, new software and statistical methods are making it easier to detect when maps have been distorted, resulting in increased knowledge and awareness of the problem — and along with it, a new “opportunity to police and prevent redistricting abuses.”
With Democrats now in control of the governorship in a number of key states where gerrymandering skews results in the GOP’s favor, 2021 will bring a huge opportunity to start unraveling the built-in advantage that Republicans gave themselves the last time the maps were drawn.
Gerrymandering is not the only way Republicans are corrupting our democratic process and tipping the scales in their favor. Through a variety of voter suppression tactics, Republicans are making it harder for people to register to vote, cast their ballots, and effectuate change with their votes.
Republican-led voter suppression is rooted in the racist ideology at the core of Trump’s GOP. Minority voters, who make up a large part of the Democratic Party’s voting bloc, are hit hardest by tactics like strict voter ID laws and limited polling hours. Since they know their policies and ideas can’t win over these voters, Republicans have instead resorted to trying to limit their ability to vote and to have their votes counted.
Going into midterms, more than half of the states in the country (33) didn’t allow same day voter registration, while a surge of laws limiting early voting and access to polling places has had a severe impact on minority voter participation in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Research shows that early voting can increase voter participation by about 2 to 4 percent. On the other hand, eliminating early voting has been found to disproportionately decrease turnout in communities of color.
Since the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, counties previously monitored under the Voting Rights Act have slashed the number of polling places, resulting in longer drive times (and complications with transportation), longer lines at the polls, and widespread confusion among voters and poll workers.
Thanks to these tactics, there were at least 868 fewer polling places open in 2016 than in 2012.
As the authors of one recent report on poll closures explained, the consequences of such moves are severe and far-reaching:
Polling place closures are a particularly common and pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color. Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible. These changes can place an undue burden on minority voters, who may be less likely to have access to public transportation or vehicles, given continuing disparities in socioeconomic resources. Once an election is conducted, there is no judicial remedy for the loss of votes that were never cast because a voter’s usual polling place has disappeared
Voter ID laws are another key voter suppression tactic used by Republicans. At least 34 states have enacted laws requiring voters to show photo ID before they can cast a ballot. Prior to 2006, not a single state required photo ID to vote.
The proliferation of voter ID laws has resulted in a drop in voter turnout among minorities, especially in racially diverse districts. The drop in minority voter participation cannot be explained by other factors such as partisan competition or county demographics, leading the authors of one recent study to conclude that “strict voter ID laws do discriminate.”
Another study, the first of its kind to analyze certified votes across all states after the enforcement of voter laws in multiple elections, found that “strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections.”
“By instituting strict voter ID laws, states can alter the electorate and shift outcomes toward those on the right. Where these laws are enacted, the influence of Democrats and liberals wanes and the power of Republicans grows. Unsurprisingly, these strict ID laws are passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures,” the authors of the study wrote in the Washington Post.
We saw the election-day impact of voter suppression in states like Kansas, Missouri, Georgia, and Illinois, where voters were met with hours-long waits at their polling places. While we don’t know how this influenced election results, previous research indicates that the likely outcomes include lower voter participation, suppression of minority votes, and vote totals skewed toward Republicans.
Democrats still managed to walk away with impressive wins this week, but that doesn’t mean voter suppression is any less of a problem — and it definitely should not be taken as a reason to stop fighting against voter suppression at every level and in every way it manifests.
In fact, there’s good reason to believe that the GOP will try even harder to suppress the vote after suffering such a huge defeat in the midterms. Look no further than Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, where Republicans are so afraid of losing key races that they’re making baseless claims of voter fraud and fighting to make sure every vote is not counted.
Threats to election security
While improvements have been made since 2016, there are still significant vulnerabilities leaving our election systems at risk of being hacked or otherwise tampered with.
It has already been reported that there was a successful cyberattack against Knox County, Tennessee, during the primaries, and DHS recently sent out a report warning of a “growing” number of attempted cyberattacks on state and local election systems during the 2018 midterms.
Yet under the Trump administration, cybersecurity has largely been neglected, and the White House still has no strategy for combating election influence operations.
As Politico reported:
Few states have implemented post-election risk-limiting audits to safeguard against tampering, and some still use particularly vulnerable paperless voting machines. Texas and Georgia already have seen voting glitches on such machines, as POLITICO’s Christian Vasquez and Matthew Choi reported Sunda. At least two other states had been using file-sharing software on state election servers that made them vulnerable in other ways, Pro Publica reported late last week.
Even in the absence of cyberattacks, voting infrastructure still poses a threat to the integrity of our elections due to aging election machines, poor ballot design, failure to perform routine maintenance, and lack of paper backups in case of machine failure or discrepancies. During the midterm elections, voting machine problems were reported in Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and several other states.
Until we can ensure that all votes are cast, counted, reported accurately, and free from foreign and domestic malign influence, the legitimacy of our elections — and by extension, the integrity of our democracy — will remain in question.
Democracy was on the ballot in 2018 — in more ways than one.
By delivering a decisive victory to Democrats, voters made it clear that they want their elected representatives to serve as a check on Trump’s power, hold him accountable for his abuses of power, and step up where Republicans have backed down.
But Tuesday also gave Americans in many states a chance to vote directly for democracy reform initiatives, and the results show that voters are ready for change.
Redistricting reform was on the ballot in four states and it passed in three and holds a narrow edge in the fourth (Utah), where votes are still being counted. In the three states where it already passed, more than 60 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of forming independent redistricting commissions to stop partisan gerrymandering, sending a strong message that citizens are not going to sit back and let politicians keep calling the shots.
Furthermore, ballot initiatives to strengthen voting rights passed by overwhelming margins in all four states that voted on them, while campaign finance reform initiatives passed in another four states.
And when candidates promised change, voters lined up to support them. Of the 30 Democratic candidates who flipped House seats to blue, 25 ran on reform platforms.
If 2018 taught us anything, it’s that Americans still have faith that our democracy can be strengthened and brought back to health. Voters want change, and they want Democrats to lead the way in making those changes. And the time to make that happen is right now.
Both Republicans and Democrats will have to go before voters again in 2020, and you can be sure Republicans will do everything they can to hijack the system and swing the vote in their favor. With a losing agenda, Republicans are taking deliberate actions to undermine democracy rather than participate in it.
But as hard as Republicans have tried, they haven’t canceled democracy yet. We get to vote again and try to make more gains in just two years’ time, which is a privilege and responsibility that people living under the rule of repressive regimes and illberal democracies don’t have.
Midterm elections brought a historic surge in voter turnout (made possible by a record number of states offering early voting), and the next two years bring an opportunity to make sure all of those voters — and more — show up in 2020 and beyond.
Election Day was never going to solve the long-term problems that got us here in the first place. We knew that before Tuesday, and it remains true today. But midterms showed us that change is possible, and now we have a blueprint to make it happen.
So let’s get to work.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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