Our democracy isn’t out of the woods — state legislators can protect it for good
This midterm election, people of color, women and young voters — and the organizations and candidates that helped to mobilize them to the polls — played an essential role in fending off the worst-case scenario for our democracy by forcefully rejecting election deniers and authoritarianism. In competitive, highly watched races nationwide, the vast majority of election-denying candidates lost. All secretary of State candidates who echoed the “big lie” about the 2020 election in battleground states lost their races. Arizona defeated a measure requiring voter ID for mail-in voting while Connecticut won early voting. Voters even delivered pro-democracy legislative majorities by flipping state chambers in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. What makes this even more powerful is that all of these pro-democracy wins were secured in an electoral landscape shaped by years of successful right-wing gerrymandering and misinformation, voter suppression laws and structural disadvantages.
We cannot assume, however, that election denialism and extremism will disappear overnight. Anti-voter politicians are again sowing doubt in election results and some officials refusing to certify results. Reforms to shore up our elections and democracy are now even less likely to happen in Congress, since Republicans will gain control of the House in January and Democrats will stay in power in Senate. That’s why we must direct our attention and support toward the states — especially the state legislators whose policies will determine whether we have free and fair elections in 2024 and beyond.
Winning these races and campaigns for our democracy was, in fact, just the beginning of the fight. Now the hard work of inclusive governing and advancing pro-voter policy at the state level starts. Except, inclusive governing and advancing pro-voter policy gets far less attention and resources than winning races.
Soon after Election Day, the multi-billion dollar electoral apparatus moves on and newly-elected leaders — particularly those in “down-ballot” races like state legislators — are left with little support to do their jobs. Many of these new legislators have never held elected office before, most are severely underpaid and juggle their legislative duties with their regular job, and few have staff to help them. This lack of support isn’t commensurate with state legislators’ power, which is immense.
Anti-voting forces have long understood how to swoop in and turn this gap to their advantage, using deep-pocketed, corporate-backed groups to support like-minded legislators and push voter suppression policies through conservative legislatures. Meanwhile, groups and donors involved in electoral politics who — like the majority of Americans — want to see leaders who believe in voting rights win, haven’t invested nearly as much in pro-voter policymaking at the state level. Recently, we have seen dozens of anti-voter bills signed into law; sham reviews of election results conducted by partisan, conservative state houses — and legislatures seeking the power to overturn the results of our elections.
Now is the time to turn the tide. State legislators from both blue and red states need support in passing pro-voter reforms and resisting further attempts to make it harder to vote — including from progressive groups that must get involved in electoral politics beyond an election cycle.
While there is no one size fits all solution and each state, county and community is unique, we must focus on making voting more accessible, including expanded vote-by-mail, early voting and language options. We must keeping partisanship out of how elections are run and results certified. We must protect election officials and workers, voters and legislators from the threat of political violence, as well as fight efforts to dilute the power of voters of color, working people and young people.
Some states have already shown what’s possible in supporting pro-democracy measures, including Colorado’s Multilingual Ballot Access For Voters Law. This new law establishes requirements for minority language sample ballots to be available during elections and the creation of a multilingual voting hotline to improve the voting process for non-native English speakers.
With more pro-democracy state legislators to come into office this January, we must go even further. We owe it to voters who bucked historical trends (and a lot of punditry) to deliver meaningful change so they don’t have to save democracy from the abyss again.
Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party.
Jessie Ulibarri is a former Colorado state senator and current co-executive director of State Innovation Exchange, the country’s largest network of state legislators (more than 2,000) committed to advancing progressive policies.
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