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Voting rights activist Regina Cosio of Syracuse, New York, dresses as "Ms Liberty" as she participates in a pre-march rally during a March On For Voting Rights event at McPherson Square August 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. Activists gathered in Washington to mark the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and urged the Senate to pass voting rights legislations. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

State Lawmakers Must Act to Save Democracy From GOP Attacks

Our democracy is at its most vulnerable in decades with safeguards to protect voting rights and prevent partisan gerrymandering continuing to crumble, especially at the state level.

Andrew HongAidan Smith

The January 6 commission hearings cement what even the most casual observer has known for years: The state of American democracy is in absolute crisis, and it’s only going to get worse without immediate intervention. While our institutions were strong enough to prevent Donald Trump from stealing the 2020 election, America’s remaining democratic safeguards continue to crumble, especially at the state level.

With Congress having failed to safeguard American voting rights in the 117th Congress, anti-democratic forces across the country have continued to push forward their radical right-wing agenda. From draconian voting restrictions to the possibility that opponents of democracy will oversee elections in key swing states in 2024, progressives must push back vigilantly at the state level to revitalize democracy.

The single best way to safeguard Americans’ right to vote is through truly automatic voter registration (AVR). After all, one of the main ways that reactionary politicians have been able to get away with anti-democratic voter roll purges is because it’s done in the “fog” of an intentionally confusing system of self-registration.

The closest thing to true AVR is what is known as the “back-end” system, where individuals are automatically registered after a DMV visit (known as a “transaction”) and have the choice to opt-out later. This contrasts with the “opt-in” system, where would-be voters are asked on a DMV screen (or equivalent point of transaction) if they’d like to register. Unsurprisingly, the latter often leads to would-be voters reflexively declining to do so.

A comprehensive study of AVR authored by Rachel Funk Fordham and published by Data for Progress in March 2022 found that “Of all the varieties of AVR discussed in this report, a back-end, default, multiple-agency model” is “likely to be most successful in achieving the goals of increased electoral participation, greater turnout equality, and a straightforward, secure registration process.” (Disclosure: Co-author Aidan Smith is a Senior Advisor at Data for Progress, but did not have a role in authoring the report).

States must also fight against partisan gerrymandering. In the United States, it is a national disgrace that elected leaders are able to effectively “pick their voters” through favorably gerrymandering schemes. In recent years, instances of gerrymandering in the U.S. have soared nationwide. In the 2020 redistricting cycle, both parties resorted to intensely gerrymandering states where they controlled redistricting in order to stave off gerrymander losses elsewhere.

Partisan gerrymandering often leads to fewer “majority-minority” districts, which occurred in the 2020 redistricting cycle despite the country becoming more diverse. Gerrymandering also creates fewer competitive “swing” districts, creating more elections where the outcome is predetermined by the ruling party. All of these symptoms of gerrymandering erode voter choice, voting rights for people of color, and our democracy at-large.

While state courts have historically acted as an accountability check against extreme partisan gerrymandering, the current right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court may likely strip state court’s power to stop partisan gerrymandering and undermine Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (which protects voting rights for racial minorities). We cannot rely on an extremist Supreme Court to protect voting rights, states must act now to protect voting rights in redistricting.

First, states should enact nonpartisan, citizen-led redistricting commissions in place of state legislatures. This takes redistricting out of the hands of politicians, and back to the people. Independent redistricting commissions have shown to create fairer districts that trigger less lawsuits that overturn maps. Last year they worked in several states, namely in Michigan where its commission undid last cycle’s egregious Republican gerrymander.

Second, states should join California, Washington, and New York in enacting their own state Voting Rights Acts. This creates a legal safety net from likely Supreme Court rulings against federal protections for “majority-minority” districts. Majority-minority districts establish communities’ of color ability to elect candidates of their choice. Without protections for them, people of color will have even less opportunity for representation in Congress, especially in Southern states already fighting majority-Black districts in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.

As social scientists advance in redistricting research, there will be more technology tools to identify racist gerrymandering. Researchers at MGGG have developed models to create “ensembles” of VRA-compliant redistricting plans that can be referenced to highlight when a gerrymandered map dilutes minority representation—as MGGG did against Texas’ congressional maps.

These tools can be leveraged with the Voting Rights Act to strike down gerrymanders and create more opportunities for representation for communities of color—but only if we have a strong Voting Rights Act. States must enact their own, improved Voting Rights Acts so these new advances in data science can be used to improve representation for people of color indefinitely.

Our democracy is at its most vulnerable in decades. Accordingly, our state legislatures must act now to pass common-sense voting rights protections to protect our democracy from an extremist federal judiciary and Donald Trump.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Andrew Hong

Andrew Hong

Andrew Hong is a Stanford undergraduate and the Statewide Coordinator of Redistricting Justice for Washington, a coalition of 25+ organizations—including chapters of Planned Parenthood, the Urban League, and League of Women Voters—advocating for fair districts and voting rights for people of color in Washington State's redistricting process.

Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith is a Senior Advisor at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. His research focuses on issue areas such as federal personnel, competition policy, and automatic voter registration.

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