It’s ridiculous that we’re still having this argument when it has been so amply demonstrated both that voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent and that ID laws disenfranchise large numbers of Americans. But logic and evidence never stopped Republicans from making an argument when it would help them seize and hold power, which is why Democrats have to work extra-hard simply to level the electoral playing field.
That’s why it was so significant that the Michigan Supreme Court ruled yesterday that an initiative to move control of the state’s district lines from the party that controls the legislature to an independent commission can appear on ballots in November. Though the initiative’s backers had gathered more than enough signatures, a coalition of Republicans led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce sued to declare the initiative invalid. The lawsuit lost, but only by a 4-3 margin.
The situation in Michigan is an excellent microcosm of how Republicans have managed to twist the procedures of democracy to their advantage, and what it will take to undo those distortions. After they took control of the legislature and the governor’s office in 2010, Republicans were in a position to gerrymander their state after that year’s census, which they did with gusto. Today, in a state that has often voted for Democrats (Barack Obama won it twice, and Trump won it by fewer than 11,000 votes), nine of the state’s 14 members of Congress are Republicans.
As the New York Times reported, in newly disclosed emails involving the 2011 redistricting, Republicans in the legislature “boast of concentrating ‘Dem garbage’ into four of the five southeast Michigan districts that Democrats now control, and of packing African-Americans into a metropolitan Detroit House district. One email likened a fingerlike extension they created in one Democratic district map to an obscene gesture toward its congressman, Representative Sander M. Levin.”
Chances are that the initiative will win in November — one poll found voters favoring it by 53-27 — but the state will still have its voter-ID law, voter purges using Kris Kobach’s discredited Crosscheck system, and pretty much any other means Republicans can come up with to make voting more difficult, especially for poor, young and minority voters.
All of which shows not only that dismantling the GOP’s comprehensive war on voting rights will be a complex task, but also that if they succeed in doing so, Democrats won’t have given themselves an unfair advantage in the way Republicans have. Instead, they will merely give both parties an equal chance at translating their support among the public into success at the polls. But in 2018, that’s what counts as an enormous victory for Democrats.
The Michigan initiative isn’t the only one on the ballot this November. Initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions will be on ballots in Colorado, Utah and possibly Missouri. In addition, voters in Maryland will vote to allow same-day registration, Floridians will vote on restoration of voting rights for those with felony convictions, and Nevadans will vote on automatic voter registration, in which everyone is registered when they get a driver’s license unless they choose to opt out.
That might sound good, but frankly, it’s pathetic. This is potentially a huge year at the polls for Democrats, and they’ve only been able to put a handful of election measures on state ballots. If they put half the effort into securing voting rights and fair elections that Republicans have put into undermining them, the political landscape of America would be transformed.
There are 26 states, plus D.C., that allow some form of ballot initiative. Every one of them should be a target for initiatives that accomplish the following, at a minimum:
- Creation of an independent redistricting commission
- Repeal of voter-ID laws
- Reform of voter purge laws
- Automatic voter registration
- Same-day registration
- Expanded early voting
- Repeal of felon disenfranchisement
And in every state, whether it allows initiatives or not, Democrats should make the promotion of fair voting and representation a core part of their agenda, something they constantly promote and push through the moment they have the power to do so. This can’t be something only a small number of activists care about; it has to be a top priority for the entire party. And to repeat, all these measures don’t give them an unfair advantage; they merely level the playing field so that every citizen is able to vote and be represented.
Right now, in response to both the Trump presidency and the lunacy gripping the Republican Party, Democrats are building a revolution all across the country. If they want it to truly succeed, they need to put as much energy into rolling back the success Republicans have had at rigging the electoral game as they do into health care, taxes or any other issue. Because if they can’t succeed in fixing the system, everything else they try to do will fail.