Carole Levine January 27, 2022
As I write this, our federal Senators and Representatives are engaged in a continuous and seemingly endless divide. There is much posturing, but little movement. And while Democrats face off internally, it seems clear that not one Republican Senator will bend to the wishes of his or her constituents and support anything. But the real actions, with real consequences, are not happening in Washington D.C. One only has to look in your own backyard, your own local school board, your own city hall, your own county commission, and especially your own state legislatures and state courts to see where the key decisions are really happening. While our federal government officials snarl at one another across a partisan divide, our state and local governing bodies are ratcheting up their own partisan positions. And at these more grassroots levels, without the same media attention, they are changing the landscape for both good and for bad and often for the long term. Perhaps, this is where our attention belongs.
The results of the 2020 Census documented change in a range of areas, but in actuality, that change was small and rather focused. The U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020 was the second-lowest in U.S. history. The bulk of the population shift was to the states in the Sun Belt which might seemingly bring smiles to Republicans who currently dominate there. But those smiles may be short-lived if one looks at the demographics of those population shifts. Much of the new Sun Belt population gains have occurred in the interior parts of the West and South, and are made up of migrants and new immigrants who have now populated these regions. This is a change in the voting population as well as they trend younger and more liberal than before. Even states that gained seats in Congress, may lose their clout in the Electoral College with this population shift.
If you turn your focus away from Washington D.C. and look locally, you may find yourself confronted with changes in who will represent you in your state or city government as your local elected officials grapple with redistricting. And more and more, the same partisan and often racist issues will rear their heads in just how these state and local boundaries will be drawn. The goal for those doing the drawing, one would hope, would be equity in representation, based on these new 2020 census numbers. But for many, depending on just who does the mapping, the goal is to ensure and secure Democratic or Republican domination and leadership for at least the next 10 years. And the results of these mapping processes often end up in state and eventually in federal courts to determine the fairness of the process. (It should be noted that in some cases, these maps may include state judicial districts as well.) The fairness of these processes and the results of these processes, including those who adjudicate them, often is dependent on the fairness of the prior process and the laws passed for voting and elections in a state, or county or local community. And, as we have been seeing across the country, controlling voting rights, down to who can and who cannot vote, is a major issue in many state legislatures.
As we are often fixated on issues in Washington D.C., perhaps we need to turn our gaze homeward. More and more our real power to influence what is important to us is happening in our own backyard. According to the Brennan Center for Justice last year 19 states passed 34 laws making it harder to vote, with more states moving such laws forward this year. A bill in New Hampshire (yep, it’s happening in the North, not just the South!) would let citizens sue to remove election officials they don’t like. It seems that election officials have become the new targets for the ire of those who seek to control our votes and the direction of our state and local policies. Much attention is now being paid to races for Secretary of State in “swing states” where that office controls elections and election results. Money is being raised in large amounts and these are now considered key races. But if we move our gaze from the state level to an even more local level, we can see an even more disturbing change.
Violent death threats against local poll workers and election officials have proliferated as the “Stop the Steal” myth has grown across the nation. As dedicated officials have tried to carry on, state legislatures have complicated the situation. Sam Levine reported in the Guardian, “As election officials face threats across the country, Republican lawmakers have inserted provisions into several new laws that impose steep penalties for officials who run afoul of election rules. In Iowa, a new Republican-backed law authorizes a fine of up to $10,000 on officials who commit ‘technical infraction’. A new Texas law similarly authorizes criminal punishment and $1,000 fines on election officials who fail to follow rules.”
It’s no wonder that many who have been in this profession for years are choosing to leave, leaving these positions open for those with little experience or nefarious motives to get into positions where they could exercise enormous power over how elections are run. “I think part of the purpose of these threats and this ongoing lie is to get people to quit their jobs,” said Claire Woodall-Vogg, the executive director of the Milwaukee election commission, who has also received a wave of threats since the election. “So that then you have either elections that aren’t as well run and you get people in who you can control.”
The issues that will most impact what you care about may not be happening at the national level. While what our Senators and Representatives will or won’t do will have great influence on our rights, much of what is being implemented for the future will be done within our own state borders and in our local communities. It is critical that we not lose sight of this. Pay attention to what your state legislature, your state courts and your local governments are doing when it comes to your rights. When they are mapping new districts that cut off real representation of all people in your state in order to ensure their own power and control, our democracy is in trouble. When something is not right, we need to speak up. We need to call it out and build coalitions that will oppose these actions. One of my organizing colleagues used to say: “Change is hard – you go first!” We cannot wait for someone else to “go first.” It’s definitely our turn.