If you care about democracy — not whether your side wins the next election, but the future of the American system of government — these are dark times.
But now and again, there are tiny glimmers of hope — indications that even in Republican states, there are limits to the attacks on democracy that people will tolerate. On Tuesday, we saw one such glimmer in South Dakota.
It’s a deeply Republican state; former president Donald Trump won it by overwhelming margins twice. But by a resounding 2-to-1 margin, voters there just rejected an initiative put on the ballot by Republicans meant to ensure that poor people in South Dakota will remain without health coverage no matter what citizens of the state want.
The story starts with the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which has been a smashing success. Not only has it brought health-care coverage to millions of Americans, but it has also produced a range of other benefits, including positively affecting economic growth and state balance sheets.
Yet 12 Republican-run states have refused the expansion for an ugly amalgam of ideological reasons: They don’t like government providing services; they don’t think poor people deserve health-care coverage; and they still want to stick it to former president Barack Obama.
But activists in South Dakota teed up a ballot initiative to force the state to accept the expansion, which will appear on the ballot in November. If it passes, South Dakota will become the seventh state where Republican legislators blocked Medicaid expansion but the voters approved it (including Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah).
So the GOP responded by adding a measure to the primary ballot — for which mostly Republicans turn out to vote — that would have required future initiatives to get a supermajority of 60 percent to win. There was never any doubt it targeted the Medicaid initiative; one GOP leader explicitly said this was the reason.
Yet it failed badly. What does that tell us?
One lesson Republicans might draw: If they want to take power away from citizens, they’ll have more success doing it through institutions — especially legislatures and the courts — over which they have control, rather than letting voters weigh in on whether to abdicate their own influence.
That’s what Republicans have done in other places, where they have undertaken post-hoc efforts to nullify voter initiatives they don’t like. One repugnant case happened in Florida, where by a 30-point margin, voters passed an initiative in 2018 to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who had served their time. So Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-run legislature passed a bill requiring them to pay every cent of court costs, fines and fees before voting rights would be restored — in effect, a poll tax preventing people from voting if they don’t have the money to pay it.
In many cases ex-felons couldn’t even find out what money they owed because the state made it so difficult. The whole scheme was eventually rubber-stamped by a federal appeals court dominated by judges appointed by Trump.
Another example comes from Missouri. Voters approved a Medicaid expansion in 2020. Then the legislature refused to allocate the relatively modest amount of money the state had to contribute (the federal government picks up 90 percent of the cost), stopping the initiative from taking effect.
One Republican legislator justified the action this way: “Rural Missouri said no.” In other words, a multiracial majority of the state’s voters must yield to the votes of a White minority, whose will is the only one that matters. In the end, the state Supreme Court ordered the state to comply with the voter initiative.
That leads to another lesson for Republicans: When they attack democracy, they’ll only get their voters to line up behind the assault if they characterize it as a war of us against them. It’s harder to do that with Medicaid (which is enormously popular) than with gerrymandering or voter suppression, which involve direct conflicts between Republicans and Democrats.
If and when Medicaid expansion passes in South Dakota, the ruling Republicans will probably grumble and move on. They might not like the idea of poor people being a little less miserable, but as long as the broader project of undermining democracy so Republicans can rule even when they’re in the minority keeps its momentum, things are still going their way.