Flipping the House Is Nice, But the Real Power Is Local
The rumored midterm blue wave turned out to be widespread but wasn’t as fierce as Democrats had hoped. Republicans turned out in high numbers, too, and in key places. But the electoral process got the attention of young people and people of color, and talk of voting rights was loud even after the last polls closed.
Of course, the real wave was in overall turnout. An initial estimate from Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who specializes in U.S. elections, is 111.9 million people voted, with a turnout rate of 47.5 percent, the highest for a midterm since 1966.
But the most promising result of the election may be that it will allow congressional Democrats to provide some cover for their counterparts at the local level.
That’s because the real fight was, and still is, in your state.
States control the elections we hold in this country. They set the rules on who gets to vote, where and when they can do it, and what makes those votes valid or invalid. They even determine how Electoral College votes are allocated in a presidential election (Nebraska and Maine notably do not follow the winner-takes-all rules in place in the other states). The 2018 season has shown that many Republicans are more interested in throwing people off the voter rolls than ensuring the systems worked and were secure.
The 2018 election results have been widely dissected through a congressional and partisan lens. But more significantly, individual races as well as collective returns showed that Americans want diversity of representation in their government.
In Georgia and Florida, two Black gubernatorial candidates, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, came within a stone’s throw of winning despite overtly racist campaigning from their opponents, including, in Georgia, attempted disenfranchisement of Black voters.
These statehouse races do have national significance. Democrats flipped seven governor’s races and seven state legislative chambers. Those are the governors and legislatures that will be drawing new district maps after the 2020 Census, which will determine how competitive future races for Congress will be. At the very least, that means they’ll have to compromise, and that the most egregious one-sided gerrymandering can be avoided.
But further down the political power food chain, the local elected officials have more immediate impact on our lives than congressional representatives do. Local government sets fees and taxes. It decides education budgets and curriculums. It determines land use. In an era when the federal government turns hostile to things such as environmental protection, civil rights, and health care and pursues militaristic and racist initiatives like a border wall or blanket travel bans, local government must find the tools of power to protect their people. If the Supreme Court overturns or fatally undermines Roe v. Wade, local government determines what level of reproductive freedom women will have.
Local power is in the very notion of sanctuary cities. We see it in issues as diverse as California’s higher vehicle emissions standards to the several states that refused to send their National Guard troops to the border to detain and split migrant families.
Local initiatives have the power to improve lives immediately. Medicaid expansion was approved in three red states. Oregon and Nebraska are pushing through bills to guarantee equal pay and paid family leave for their citizens. Rhode Island lawmakers are the latest to join a national trend in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nevada voted to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax,” exempting menstrual products from state sales taxes.
New laws in nearly a dozen states, both Democrat- and Republican-held, promise to reduce corruption and police brutality. Initiatives passed that will curb partisan gerrymandering and reform campaign finance and otherwise make local governments more responsive to their electorates. In Florida, voting rights were restored to 1.4 million felons who had served their sentences.
This isn’t to say a Democrat-controlled House won’t be able to accomplish some good things at the federal level. At very least, we can look forward to robust investigations of claims against the Trump administration—from harsh treatment of immigrant families to questions about Russian influence with the president.
That’s all well and good. But ending one-party rule in Washington, D.C., has more often meant continuing partisan gridlock. The more relevant political battle lines will continue to shift to our states and cities, where the real struggle for power lies.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.