America’s Crisis of Democracy Has Already Arrived
In most battleground states, minority rule is preparing a bloodless, anti-democratic coup
The original version of this article was published by The Boston Globe
In spite of primaries held this week and others to follow in the days ahead, the signs of our imperiled democracy can be seen most anywhere.
In the purple battleground of Wisconsin, where Democrats control every elected statewide office, abortion is now illegal, without exceptions for rape or incest. It’s also a felony for doctors to perform abortions. Every clinic has suspended services, including the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter. Many providers have relocated across the Illinois state line instead.
That seems impossible for Wisconsin — where 58 percent of citizens believe abortion should be legal in all or nearly all circumstances. The reality, however, is that extreme partisan gerrymandering has transformed Wisconsin and other moderate states like Ohio into something resembling Alabama and Mississippi.
There appears to be little that Wisconsin voters can do about it.
Voters have spent the past decade trying to overwhelm or out-organize sophisticated gerrymanders with big blue waves. But the redistricted maps designed to benefit Republicans are a seawall that withstands any surge. In these states, citizens have so little control over their elected officials that the states can’t honestly be described as democracies at all.
In 2010, Republicans spent tens of millions on a bold strategy called REDMAP, short for the Redistricting Majority Project, designed to capture swing-state legislative chambers ahead of the decennial redistricting. They flipped chambers in Wisconsin and Ohio, but also Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania — and haven’t lost a single one since, even when Democrats have earned hundreds of thousands more votes.
A decade later, it’s clear that the 2010 election was the most consequential in modern American history and gave birth to an era of entrenched Republican minority rule that will stretch for a generation in Wisconsin and many other competitive and even blue-leaning states.
After all, Wisconsin might be our most closely divided state. Its legislative maps, rigged by Republicans in 2011 so that the GOP could hold the state Senate and Assembly even when Democrats won as much as 54 percent of the statewide vote, haven’t reflected the state’s actual balance for more than a decade.
Democrats swept every statewide office in 2018 and carried the popular vote for the Assembly by more than 200,000 votes, but Republicans still maintained a near super-majority advantage of 63-36.
The policy consequences of this imbalance are profound. Wisconsin’s law banning abortion dates back to 1849. As the threats to Roe mounted in federal courts, majorities of voters had no road to convince a gerrymandered legislature to modernize a statute from the days before the Civil War.
When the Dobbs decision arrived in June — and Justice Samuel Alito disingenuously insisted the court was less overturning Roe than returning the issue to the states — Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, called a special session of the Legislature to debate abortion’s future in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Legislature convened the session, then promptly gaveled out, without any debate at all.
This is the behavior of politicians who need not be accountable to voters. And it has become a dreary, predictable ritual here, whether the issue is background checks for guns, voting by mail during a pandemic, or social justice after Kenosha police in 2020 shot a Black man several times in the back. Even when polls show 80 percent of Wisconsin voters want action on these issues, lawmakers defy democracy and remind voters than they have only one actual choice: GOP rule.
It’s not just Wisconsin. In Michigan, where almost 58 percent of voters opposed overturning Roe, the Supreme Court decision reactivated a 1931 law that banned abortions. Democrats have won more votes than the GOP for Michigan’s state house every election since 2012, yet have never won a majority of seats. So the state’s gerrymandered, GOP-controlled Legislature has blocked a new law more in line with public opinion and forced the issue into the courts, where in recent weeks access and legality has changed by the hour.
In Ohio, extreme gerrymandering has dyed a once-national bellwether a shade of red much deeper than public opinion indicates. Ohio voters overwhelmingly backed two initiatives to reform redistricting and end this cycle of extremism; politicians ignored them and the new laws, even under repeated orders from the state’s supreme court. Now Ohio is one of four states, all dominated by Republicans, where elections will be held this fall under maps that have been declared unconstitutional.
And of course, it’s not just abortion rights. Over the past decade, gerrymandered state legislatures have enacted right-wing legislation on voting rights, guns, labor, the environment, transgender bathroom access, and so much more, regardless of what public opinion wants. In generally blue-leaning Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as purple Wisconsin and North Carolina, only Democratic governors elected mid-decade have prevented hard-right GOP rule.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court will hear a case from North Carolina this fall that could hand state legislatures even more power — perhaps unfettered power, free from any gubernatorial veto or state supreme court oversight — over election law, legislative maps, and potentially the awarding of electoral college votes. This would put the GOP in charge of every swing state, from Wisconsin to Arizona. Any uprising leading up to the 2024 election would be technical, bloodless, and coldly efficient.
In state after state, our crisis of democracy has already arrived. Very few states are immune to becoming the next Wisconsin or Ohio, where elections can still be held, but the results are pre-ordained, a creeping mini-Hungary within the world’s oldest so-called democracy.
Democracy is on the ballot in 2022 and 2024. We dare not fail in our efforts to preserve it.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”
David Daley @davedaley3
Thanks for reading DemocracySOS! Your digital portal for the pro-democracy movement. Subscribe for only $5 per month to receive full benefits and to support our work!
It is only state constitutions that prevent the majority party of a state legislature from passing legislation that eliminates residents' right to vote for POTOS. Instead, the legislature would appoint members of the Electoral College to follow its bidding. It is time for massive election reforms throughout the nation to preserve representative democracy.