Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that a state senator launched a drive to impeach state Supreme Court justices. He is a state representative. This version has been corrected. 8:42 p.m.
The Supreme Court has refused to hear a challenge to a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that struck down the state’s congressional districts as an unlawful gerrymander that violated the state’s constitution. In response, one Republican state representative launched a drive to impeach the state Supreme Court justices who had voted to strike down the congressional districts.
Because that’s what you do when court decisions don’t go your way: Get rid of the judges.
What’s happening in Pennsylvania has national importance. Because of the GOP gerrymander, this closely divided state with a slight Democratic advantage is represented in Congress by 13 Republicans and only five Democrats. The redrawing of the maps will inevitably produce Democratic gains in November, making it more likely that Democrats take back the House, which would have an utterly transforming effect on the Trump presidency.
But this isn’t limited to Pennsylvania. All over the country, Republicans are working to rig the electoral process in their favor. It’s not just about holding off a potential Democratic wave this year, as important as that is. It’s also about allowing them to continue to hold the majority of American political power despite having the support of a minority of the voters.
If you want to pull this off, it isn’t enough to pass a few laws on things such as voter ID. You have to mount a comprehensive assault on any institution that might constrain your ability to hold on to power, both inside and outside government. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. But there may be some hope for Democrats, which we’ll discuss in a bit.
The fact that at least some Pennsylvania Republicans responded to unfavorable rulings from the Supreme Courts of both their state and the federal government with “This isn’t over yet!” shows just how committed they are to setting the rules of the game in their favor. Here are the key techniques they’ve used:
- Vote suppression laws making it more difficult to register and vote, which fall more heavily on populations more likely to vote for Democrats, particularly African Americans. These include voter ID, restrictions on early voting, purging voter rolls and limiting polling places.
- Aggressive gerrymandering to draw districts maximizing the number of seats they hold.
- In places where they have a party advantage, putting partisan labeling on previously nonpartisan elections, especially for judgeships.
- Laws limiting the power and political organizing of labor unions, particularly in the Midwest where unions have traditionally been strong.
- Turning nonpartisan agencies and boards overseeing elections into partisan entities controlled by Republicans.
- Changing campaign finance laws to undermine public financing and allow more big-money influence.
- Efforts to undermine the independence of state court systems.
This is part of a concerted effort, but Republicans have also acted in an ad hoc way when opportunities present themselves. For instance, when a Democrat was elected governor of North Carolina in 2016, the Republican legislature rushed to pass a series of bills before he took office limiting his power, especially when it came to appointing the members of election boards. Nobody had ever thought of it before, but that’s part of the genius of the GOP: It isn’t constrained by traditional norms.
It’s important to understand that Republicans aren’t doing these things only to hold on to power; they also have policy goals they’re serving. When they move to impeach judges on a state Supreme Court, they’re hoping to get more favorable rulings not just on voting rules but also on issues such as abortion. Their attack on unions is about creating a particular economic system where workers’ rights are as limited as possible, but undercutting a key Democratic organizing vehicle also bears electoral fruit, which then allows them to keep changing rules to entrench their power. A new study finds that right-to-work laws reduce Democratic presidential vote shares and dampen union organizing efforts on behalf of Democrats, producing multiple downstream policy effects.
One of the most important differences between the two parties today is that Republicans never stop asking how they can change the rules to benefit themselves. Democrats, on the other hand, are almost always on the defensive, trying to stop what Republicans are doing (with mixed success), but often getting bowled over by Republicans who have thought more about how to go about rigging the system and have more resources at their disposal.
The recent history of these efforts starts a little under a decade ago, when Republicans realized that if they could win victories in the 2010 elections, they’d control redistricting after the census. Democrats weren’t paying nearly enough attention to state elections, and in that 2010 wave, the GOP took control of multiple state legislatures. With their control of redistricting, they redrew maps across the country, and as a result, in the 2012 House elections, Democratic candidates won over a million more votes than Republican candidates, but Republicans controlled the chamber by a 33-seat margin (you can read more about that here).
“Don’t Democrats do this stuff, too?” you might be asking. The answer is, not really. They’ve used gerrymandering where they could — Maryland, for instance, has a severely gerrymandered congressional map that is the subject of a lawsuit headed to the Supreme Court — but they haven’t waged the kind of organized and sustained assault on institutions that Republicans have.
So what happens now? I spoke this morning to Carolyn Fiddler, a state politics expert at Daily Kos, who described a Democratic Party that has finally woken up to the need to focus on the states. She told me that while there are still a relatively small number of liberal groups focused on state politics, they’re raising more money than ever. When I asked whether Democratic donors are as focused on the states as they ought to be, she said, “I’m not sure that anyone will ever be as focused on the states as I think they ought to be. However, Democratic donors are definitely stepping up and investing in state-level politics this cycle in ways I’ve never seen.”
In addition, the new groups on the left such as Indivisible and Run For Something that are channeling so much activist energy are putting a large portion of their attention on state and local elections.
Democrats are also getting some wins in the courts. Pennsylvania was a major victory, and they’re winning in other places as well. In North Carolina, a federal court ordered the legislature to use a state legislative map drawn by a nonpartisan special master, throwing out the Republican-drawn districts. The Supreme Court has already heard one case on partisan gerrymandering and could well declare it unconstitutional for the first time. And in a few places, Democrats have actually gone on the offensive, passing automatic voter registration that would render some Republican vote suppression efforts moot. Voters in Florida will have a ballot measure in November to end the state’s felon disenfranchisement law, which leaves 1.5 million Floridians who have served their time without the right to vote.
But it’s still the case that Republicans are on the offensive while Democrats mostly play defense, trying to stop Republicans from rigging the system. Whether that changes will depend a great deal on what happens this November and in 2020.