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Beyond the White House, the coronavirus may be a lasting threat to politics

Beyond the White House, the coronavirus may be a lasting threat to politics
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A public health crisis is about to become a crisis of democracy: It’s imperative that Congress safeguard this November’s presidential election, expand vote-by-mail options, and guarantee that Americans won’t have to jeopardize their health to exercise their civic voice.

But there is much more at stake than just who wins the White House. The coronavirus pandemic also threatens down-ballot state and local elections. In many states, filing deadlines are upon us, and many candidates already facing an uphill path may find it even harder to imagine raising the money they’ll need, collecting signatures to get on the ballot, or going door-to-door to meet their neighbors and campaign.

These down-ballot elections will define our politics for the next decade. That’s because 2020 is not only a presidential year; it’s a redistricting year. Every state legislative and congressional district in the nation will be redrawn in 2021, following the census. In most states, state legislatures have the power to draw these lines. 

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Republicans have dominated this process since 2010, and the impact of these maps can be seen everywhere. In Michigan, after a citizen initiative repealed an “emergency manager” law that allowed the state to take control of local governments, the legislature simply put it back into place — and the manager appointed to run Flint made the decisions that led to the city’s water crisis. In Georgia, Missouri and Ohio, GOP-controlled state legislatures have adopted draconian abortion restrictions far out of step with the populace, and have allowed unrepresentative, gerrymandered legislatures to override local laws.

This has not only made our politics more extreme, it has placed too many politicians dangerously beyond the reach of the voters. More than 59 million Americans live in a state where one or both legislative chambers is controlled by the party whose candidates won fewer statewide votes in 2018, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan. 

The only way to fix this imbalance before the next decade’s maps are drawn — maps that will define American politics until 2031— is for Democrats to win back legislative chambers this fall in crucial states, and ensure that no single party has the power to draw itself an enduring advantage for the next decade.

And that’s going to be much harder given these new realities. In Arizona, where a Republican trifecta has been aggressively undermining the state’s independent redistricting commission, the filing deadline for state legislative candidates is April 6. Democrats need to flip two seats in the House or three seats in the Senate to stop the chicanery. 

In Michigan, where Democratic candidates have won more votes than Republicans in every election on these maps, but never once won more seats, the deadline is two weeks later, on April 21. Democrats need to pick up four seats in the House to end a 58-52 Republican majority.

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But if candidates can’t collect signatures by approaching people at grocery stores and Little League games, suddenly it’s going to be difficult even to get on the ballot. Some candidates have been advised to use a different sheet of paper and a different pen for every signature to mitigate health risks. In addition, fundraising is about to become much more challenging as the economy contracts and donors are less willing to open their wallets for down-ballot races. And with schools closed, many candidates with children may need to rethink their commitment to a campaign.

Even if they decide to run, however, “social distancing” takes away the most important tool for any candidate — the ability to get out and meet neighbors, to introduce themselves, and to start important conversations about local issues. Running for local office requires that kind of intensely personal connection. Down-ballot elections are won at the doors. Voters don’t expect a conversation with their next president or member of Congress. But they do expect the chance to meet their local representative. 

Chaos benefits incumbents and those who have been in office longer, often in districts where the maps were drawn in their favor. Uncertainty over voting dates, rules, and even personal safety will further advantage those who are in power. This crisis will make it harder to get out in the community, which will especially disadvantage first-time candidates trying to unseat an incumbent, and new candidates willing to take on a difficult race that more established politicians won’t dare attempt. 

As we work to protect our elections during these uncharted times, our focus must be on far more than just the White House. Winning back state legislatures and fair maps was already a steep path. It’s now getting harder. The president elected in 2020 will serve four years. But these maps will be in place far longer. Now more than ever, we neglect these local races at our peril.

Gaby Goldstein is co-founder and political director at the Sister District Project, which works to turn states blue by winning state legislative elections. Follow her on Twitter @gaby__goldstein.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.