As Washington Stews, State Legislatures Increasingly Shape American Politics

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With the release of the 2020 census last month, the drawing of legislative districts that could in large part determine control of Congress for the next decade heads to the nation’s state legislatures, the heart of Republican political power.

Increasingly, state legislatures, especially in 30 Republican-controlled states, have seized an outsize role for themselves, pressing conservative agendas on voting, Covid-19 and the culture wars that are amplifying partisan splits and shaping policy well beyond their own borders.

Indeed, for a party out of power in Washington, state legislatures have become enormous sources of leverage and influence. That is especially true for rural conservatives who largely control the legislatures in key states like Wisconsin, Texas and Georgia and could now lock in a strong Republican tilt in Congress and cement their own power for the next decade. The Texas Legislature’s pending approval of new restrictions on voting is but the latest example.

“This is in many ways genuinely new, because of the breadth and scope of what’s happening,” said Donald F. Kettl, a scholar of state governance at the University of Texas at Austin. “But more fundamentally, the real point of the spear of Trumpism is appearing at the state and local level. State legislatures not only are keeping the flame alive, but nurturing and growing it.”

He added that the aggressive role played by Republican legislatures had much further to run.

“There’s all this talk of whether or not Republicans are a party that has any future at this point,” he said, “but the reality is that Republicans not only are alive and well, but living in the state legislatures. And they’re going to be pushing more of this forward.”

The next battle, already underway in many states, is over the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans control 26 of the legislatures that will draw political maps, compared with 13 for Democrats. (Other states have nonpartisan commissions that draw legislative districts, or have just one seat.)

Democrats have embraced their own causes, passing laws to expand voting rights, raise minimum wages and tighten controls on firearms in the 18 states where they control the legislatures.

But Republican legislatures are pursuing political and ideological agendas that dwarf those of their opponents. This year’s legislative sessions have spawned the largest wave of anti-abortion legislation since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Many Republican legislatures have seized power from Democratic-leaning cities and counties on issues including policing, the coronavirus and tree preservation. They have made base-energizing issues like transgender rights and classroom teaching on race centerpieces of debate.

Most important, they have rewritten election and voting laws in ways that largely hinder Democratic-leaning voters and give Republicans more influence over how elections are run — and, critics say, how they are decided. And in some states, they are eyeing their own versions of the Arizona State Senate’s brazenly partisan review of the 2020 vote, a new and, to many, dangerous attack on the nonpartisan underpinnings of American elections.

One reason for the new activism is obvious: With Republicans out of power in Washington and Congress largely gridlocked, states are the party’s prime venues for setting policy.

“I don’t know how long it’s been since Congress has even passed a budget,” said Bryan Hughes, a Republican state senator who sponsored Texas’ latest voting bill. “So yes, clearly more responsibilities have fallen to states.”

Many Democratic legislators say Republicans are shirking those responsibilities.

“We’re one of four states with no pre-K education,” said State Representative Ilana Rubel, an Idaho Democrat. “We have a major housing crisis. We have a property-tax crisis. Those were the things we thought would be discussed. Instead, we found ourselves in a Fox News fever dream where all they wanted to do was get into these manufactured crises at the national level.”

The national role being played by state legislatures reflects in part the sorting of Americans into opposing partisan camps. Thirty years ago, 15 of the 50 state legislatures were split between Republican and Democratic control. Today, only Minnesota’s House and Senate are divided.

And the system favors partisanship. Few pay attention to state assembly races, so roughly four in 10 seats nationwide are uncontested in general elections, said Gary Moncrief, a co-author of the standard work on state politics, “Why States Matter.”

“That means the real decisions are made in the primaries,” he said, where voters tend to be hard-liners.

At first blush, state assemblies seem ill-suited to wield influence. Most are part-time affairs run by citizen lawmakers. But the minor-league image is not entirely deserved. State lawmakers control $2 trillion a year in spending and have a plate of issues, from prisons to schools to the opioid crisis, that can get lost in the whir of Washington politics.

And increasingly, top Republican strategists and well-funded conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, have poured in money and resources and policy prescriptions, figuring that legislation with no chance of getting through Congress could sail through friendly statehouses.

“From where I stand, they have a far greater impact on the life of ordinary citizens than Congress,” Tim Storey, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said of the state-level bodies.

If there is one area where state legislatures have the potential to shape the nation’s politics to a degree that goes well beyond established boundaries, it is voting.

Following former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, at least 18 states tightened voting rules, often in ways that most affect Democratic-leaning constituencies.

Most glaringly, they also gave the party more power over the mechanisms of administering elections and counting ballots.

Arkansas empowered the State Elections Board to investigate local elections and “take corrective action” against suspected irregularities, purportedly to give Republicans a fair shake. Iowa and other states would levy fines and even criminal penalties for missteps by local election officials, raising concerns that punishments could be used for partisan gain.

Georgia’s legislature gave itself control over most appointments to the State Election Board and allowed it to investigate and replace local election officials. Already, lawmakers are seeking an inquiry in Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold, although procedural hurdles in the law raise questions about how easily it could be used for partisan ends.

The legislature also gave elected county commissioners sole power to appoint local election board members, a change that has already enabled the removal of at least 10 members of those boards, most of them Democrats.

Republicans say they are seeking to deter fraud and ensure that elections are better run. Many experts and most Democrats call the laws worrying, given efforts by G.O.P. legislators and officials in at least 17 states to halt or overturn the election of President Biden and their continuing calls for often partisan ballot reviews of long-settled elections. Many fear that such failed tactics are being retooled to succeed as early as 2024.

“That is the absolutely last step toward an authoritarian system,” said Thomas E. Mann, a co-author of two books about the implications of Republicans’ rightward drift, “and they’re just hellbent on getting there.”

The Republican speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, David Ralston, rejected that. Claims that his state’s laws open back doors to sway election results, he said, amount to “hysteria.”

Compared to voting laws in Democratic bastions like New York or Delaware, he said, “we’re much more ahead of the game.” And while Republican claims of fraud dominated Georgia’s 2020 elections, he noted that the voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, who ran as a Democrat, had also refused to accept her loss in the 2018 race for governor, claiming voter suppression.

Lawmakers also pushed through legislation overriding or banning actions by local officials, generally urban Democrats. Among the targets were measures like mask requirements and proposals to reduce police department budgets in response to last summer’s unrest.

Some see brakes on how far to the right Republican legislatures can go.

Opponents are already taking the latest Republican initiatives to court. The federal Justice Department has sued to block portions of Georgia’s new voting law and has warned that partisan meddling with election reviews like the one in Arizona risk violating federal laws.

Lawyers for Democrats and voting-rights advocates are taking aim at other voting measures. And in some states, Democratic governors like Roy Cooper of North Carolina are serving as counterbalances to Republican legislatures.

“This state would look very, very different if Roy Cooper had not been governor,” said Christopher Cooper, a scholar of state politics at Western Carolina University, who is not related to the governor. “He’s vetoed more bills than any governor in North Carolina history.”

Others doubt vetoes and court decisions will settle much. “I don’t see any solution from litigation,” said Richard Briffault, a Columbia University expert on state legislation. “If there’s going to be a change, it’s going to be through the political process.”

And some say legislatures have the power to enact policy and a base that revels in what a few years back seemed like overreach. Why would they stop?

“This has become the new normal,” said Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the Texas Democrats who fled the state in July to block passage of the restrictive voting bill. “And I would expect, with a Biden administration and a Democratic Congress, that we’re likely to see more.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.

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