We don’t discuss statehouse elections much around here for obvious reasons. Maybe 1 in 100 of my Pendejo Point, Florida* neighbors could identify our state senator and rep. If the people who live here don’t care, why should anyone else? But an interview in Slate with the former head of the Ohio Democratic Party, David Pepper, suggests that as individuals we need to start paying more attention to statehouse elections because “rigged state legislatures are destroying America.”
According to interviewer Paul Rosenberg, the book, “Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines,” is important because it “connects democratic erosion to corruption and the decline in America’s quality of life, and provides a wealth of ideas about how to fight back to protect democracy.” I haven’t read the book yet, but the points about corruption and quality of life resonated because I’ve observed that phenomenon in my community for decades.
Pepper’s description of what’s happening in Ohio syncs with what I’ve seen in Florida, another former swing state with a perpetual wingnut supermajority state legislature that is moving the government much further right than voter preferences seem to indicate. And people who want to push back, including me, tend to focus overwhelmingly on gubernatorial races and federal representation. Pepper says that’s a mistake.
As Pepper notes, state legislatures are incredibly powerful since the states run elections, draw districts and count votes. Since most people don’t know who their state representatives are, statehouse pols wield great power in relative anonymity, which Pepper calls a “toxic combination.” When these anonymous, powerful legislators lock in minority rule through gerrymandering, they are unaccountable to voters and corruption inevitably follows.
As an example of the lack of accountability, Pepper talks about how a policy that limited ballot drop boxes to one per county in Ohio created massive traffic jams in cities, which was good for Republicans because fewer Democrats voted. So, instead of removing that obstacle to voting (as a pro-democracy government would be obligated to do), the Ohio legislature codified the policy into state law. Now that same approach has spread to other Republican-run states, like Florida and Texas.
Pepper discusses how corruption at the state level lowers the quality of life for citizens, another thing I bet most of us have witnessed firsthand:
The general theme of these places, outside of extremism and anti-democracy, is a massive transfer of public assets and resources to private insiders. Public school dollars go to the private school donors who are starting scam for-profit schools. In other states, It’s the privatization of the energy grid, so in Texas they couldn’t even keep things going in the wintertime. Small towns not getting any infrastructure, because public dollars have been raided by the state to give out as tax cuts at the very high end.
If you add it all up, there’s a massive movement of public resources and dollars to private insiders. That’s why one thing that comes with broken government is a rapid decline in public outcomes. In Ohio, we’re living it. A great state is finding itself ranked last or close to last in everything from higher education attainment to health care. It’s because their M.O. with the statehouse is keep the private people happy and use public resources to do it, year after year.
Yep. Here in Florida, developers are often the primary beneficiaries in this corrupt transfer of public funds. Fat cat donors get appointed to powerful positions like public university oversight boards, where they have meddled with academic freedom to benefit their party, or hold posts where they can weaken environmental protections. And because state legislators who enable all this fly under the radar, people conclude all politicians are crooks and that government can’t help citizens. It’s a vicious circle.
Pepper says breaking the corrupt, anti-democratic stranglehold on statehouses will require a combination of federal action (like passing voting rights protection plus federal investigations into corruption at the state level) and individual actions (voter registration, fielding opponents in every statehouse race, general voter education on statehouse players and power, etc.). He cites Stacey Abrams as a model for how such a movement can work within the state. As a former state legislator, Abrams knows how this works.
I think Pepper makes a great case that states are where people who want to preserve democracy should focus most of their energy as activists and donors. After all, that’s where the anti-democratic forces started many years ago, and they grew so powerful over time that they’re poised to rip our democracy out from under us if we don’t fight back effectively.
America’s dumb celebrity culture probably contributes to phenomena like the “cult of the presidency.” It makes sense in venues like this to discuss the federal government that we share. But as individuals, it’s worth thinking about how to allocate our time and money for maximum impact, and I plan to pay more attention to the statehouse.
*Not the real name of my town, but arguably it would be more accurate!