To attack systemic racism at the root, look to the state house
Less than two months after George Floyd was killed in police custody, America’s crisis of systemic racism has become a central issue ahead of the November election. A majority of voters now agree that American society is racist. And nearly two-thirds disapprove of President Trump’s handling of race relations.
But these numbers overlook a critical point: defeating Donald Trump won’t address some of the most powerful drivers of structural racism in America, including voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering.
In order to halt the ongoing assault on the political power of Black and Brown Americans, we must look to the foundation of our government: state legislatures. This could not be more important ahead of redistricting next year. Failure to break GOP control in the most influential state legislatures in the country will result in levels of voter suppression and gerrymandering not yet seen in the modern era.
GOP monopolies on power at the state level will also accelerate the extreme partisanship that has already poisoned American politics and paralyzed our ability to tackle the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, including pandemic response.
The landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder allowed states to legally dismantle the key tenants of the Voting Rights Act. Following the precedent Shelby County v. Holder set, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country waged a systematic assault on voting rights, democratic norms, and fair redistricting, to lock in unrepresentative power for the following decade.
And, specifically, four key sunbelt states — North Carolina, Arizona, Texas and Florida — have been among the worst actors, suppressing votes, gerrymandering districts, fueling political extremism, and undermining the outcome of national elections.
Texas leads the South as being the state with the most closed polling stations. A report by a coalition of civil rights groups, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, found that 750 polls in Texas had been closed statewide since 2012, despite growing populations.
In Florida, The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and other civil rights organizations last year filed a lawsuit against a new measure by GOP state lawmakers that required felons to pay fines and fees associated with their convictions before they could vote. Functioning as a modern day poll tax, a practice that originated in Florida in an effort to suppress Black voters, the new rule reduced the state’s eligible voting population by about 10 percent.
In Arizona, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision this past January in their ruling on Democratic National Committee v. Hobbs ruled that Republican state officials used two regulations on voting to stop Native American, Latino and Black voters from casting ballots.
In July of 2016, maps drawn by General Assembly Republicans in North Carolina were struck down by a federal appeals court that concluded the maps were severally racially gerrymandered and targeting African American voters. The battle was brought to The North Carolina State Supreme last year where the court ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional. In North Carolina and other states with larger than country-wide averages of Black populations, and where Black voters are closely aligned with the Democratic Party, partisan gerrymandering has implicitly become a legal way for the GOP to draw racially gerrymandered districts. With the United States Supreme Court leaving questions of partisan gerrymandering to the discretion of state courts, flipping a chamber in the legislature of key states such as North Carolina is even more crucial.
These states showcase some of the most egregious examples of voter suppression and discrimination in the modern era, but they also have another thing in common: demographic trends that prove more favorable to conditions for Democrats in state legislative races.
The majority-minority districts in these states highlight how key districts are becoming more diverse, evidenced by the growing number of candidates of color coming forward to represent their constituencies in public office. Democrats have a roadmap to victory and becoming the majority in these key states.
This is the year voters can begin to right the course of our democracy and empower Black and Brown voters nationwide. Down ballot races have proven to be increasingly important to dismantle racist policies. State legislatures hold the key to accomplishing this, and remain one of the highest-impact opportunities for Democrats to fight for racial equity this November.
China Dickeson is national political director of Forward Majority.