Opinion

Despite Rising Diversity of U.S. Electorate, State Legislatures Still Look the Same

The Democratic Party is using data and old-fashioned field work to bring more minority voters to the midterm polls.

Michael Sargeant is Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an arm of the Democratic Party charged with winning state legislative majorities for Democrats.
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Michael Sargeant
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Michael Sargeant
July 3, 2014, 2:39 a.m.

In the past dec­ade, Amer­ic­ans have watched dra­mat­ic demo­graph­ic shifts turn long­time Re­pub­lic­an strong­holds like North Car­o­lina, Nevada, and Col­or­ado in­to pres­id­en­tial swing states, while push­ing tra­di­tion­al swing states like Ore­gon, Illinois, and New Mex­ico firmly in­to the Demo­crat­ic column.

At the same time, thanks to voter out­rage over con­gres­sion­al ger­ry­man­der­ing and GOP state le­gis­lat­ors’ ef­forts to block­ade life-or-death policy ques­tions like the Medi­caid ex­pan­sion, state elec­tions have be­come more im­port­ant, hard fought and heav­ily fun­ded. But un­like in pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, the in­creased at­ten­tion that can­did­ates and parties have paid to emer­ging and fast-grow­ing groups of voters hasn’t dra­mat­ic­ally trans­formed state-level elec­tion res­ults.

That’s be­cause demo­graph­ic­ally speak­ing, the voters who have turned out and par­ti­cip­ated in re­cent midterm elec­tion cycles largely re­semble Amer­ica’s past. Older, whiter, Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing voters are more likely to vote every year, while young people and minor­it­ies tend to “drop off” — mean­ing fail to vote — in mid-term con­tests. As a res­ult, in 2010, the na­tion­wide ra­tio of white and non­white voters who de­cided that year’s state and na­tion­al elec­tions looked no dif­fer­ent than it did in 2004. In oth­er words, after turn­ing out in his­tor­ic highs and elect­ing the coun­try’s first black pres­id­ent in 2008, the in­terest and par­ti­cip­a­tion of minor­ity and young voters dipped so low in 2010 that it was as if nearly a dec­ade’s growth in Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, Latino, and Asi­an com­munit­ies had nev­er happened.

The prob­lem is com­poun­ded by heavy Re­pub­lic­an ger­ry­man­der­ing in many le­gis­latures. In Wis­con­sin, a state where the pop­u­la­tion was 86 per­cent white in the most re­cent census, Re­pub­lic­an state law­makers de­lib­er­ately drew le­gis­lat­ive dis­tricts that min­im­ized minor­ity voters’ already lim­ited in­flu­ence in le­gis­lat­ive elec­tions. As a res­ult,the party that holds the ma­jor­ity in the Wis­con­sin Sen­ate will likely be de­cided this fall in com­pet­i­tions for just four open swing seats where the non­white pop­u­la­tion av­er­ages only 9 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. If those voters also fail to turn out, their voice will be muted even fur­ther.

The in­ter­play of these two things — turnout dis­par­it­ies and ra­cial ger­ry­man­der­ing — have left many state le­gis­latures in the hands of elec­ted of­fi­cials whose polit­ics are not rep­res­ent­at­ive of new and fast-grow­ing seg­ments of the Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion.

The out­come of state le­gis­lat­ive elec­tions this fall will hinge on wheth­er Demo­crats can solve this midterm turnout di­lemma and over­come ra­cial ger­ry­man­der­ing in the most com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts. And if Pres­id­ent Obama’s two cam­paigns have taught us any­thing, it’s that har­ness­ing the power of Amer­ica’s chan­ging elect­or­ate to win le­gis­lat­ive ma­jor­it­ies won’t de­pend on mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of TV ads or swarms of mail­ers. It’ll de­pend on what happened in an Amer­ic­an Uni­versity con­fer­ence room just a few days ago.

The Demo­crat­ic Le­gis­lat­ive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s Grass­roots Vic­tory Pro­gram just held an in­tens­ive train­ing for 150 grass­roots or­gan­izers, who will now be de­ployed to run field cam­paign ef­forts in some of the closest le­gis­lat­ive battle­ground dis­tricts in the coun­try. This new group of or­gan­izers will double the Demo­crat­ic Le­gis­lat­ive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s field ef­forts when com­pared to those of just two years ago. In 2012, Demo­crats gained nearly 200 new le­gis­lat­ive seats and won new ma­jor­it­ies in eight le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers from coast to coast.

The DLCC is mak­ing this his­tor­ic in­vest­ment in grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing be­cause, quite simply, it works. And it mat­ters. Con­sider that just in 2012, a full 483 le­gis­lat­ive seats were de­cided by 500 votes or few­er. Even if a can­did­ate’s strong field cam­paign shifts the out­come by only a couple of per­cent­age points or sev­er­al hun­dred votes, the num­bers sug­gest that Demo­crats can achieve ma­jor state le­gis­lat­ive gains just by work­ing to get more voters to midterm polls.

Con­sider also the scale of a typ­ic­al state le­gis­lat­ive elec­tion. Un­like can­did­ates for Con­gress or statewide of­fices, many state le­gis­lat­ive con­test­ants face small enough elect­or­ates that they can per­son­ally meet every po­ten­tial swing voter, face-to-face, by Elec­tion Day. That kind of dir­ect, per­son-to-per­son con­tact with voters mul­ti­plies the im­pact that an ef­fi­cient, well-tar­geted field cam­paign can have at the le­gis­lat­ive level. It brings more mar­gin­ally in­ter­ested voters to the polls and some­times boosts voter-par­ti­cip­a­tion rates.

When that hap­pens, that’s of­ten good news for Demo­crats.

But the num­ber of ad­di­tion­al or­gan­izers we’re field­ing isn’t nearly as ground-break­ing as the way these re­sources will be de­ployed. We’re cent­ral­iz­ing le­gis­lat­ive field ef­forts like nev­er be­fore, dra­mat­ic­ally in­creas­ing stand­ards all over the coun­try and strength­en­ing field cul­ture across the board. In states where Demo­crats are only be­gin­ning to build their grass­roots in­fra­struc­ture, voters will ex­per­i­ence more con­tact with vo­lun­teers for their loc­al Demo­crat­ic le­gis­lat­ive cam­paigns or with the can­did­ates them­selves. In states where Demo­crats have long been able to de­ploy a strong core of vo­lun­teer act­iv­ists, the av­er­age voter may not no­tice much dif­fer­ence. But be­hind the scenes, Grass­roots Vic­tory Pro­gram or­gan­izers will take ad­vant­age of years of Demo­crat­ic pro­gress in stat­ist­ic­al ana­lys­is and ex­per­i­ment­ally tested field tac­tics to make sure every door a vo­lun­teer knocks on is a door that’s most likely to provide an ad­di­tion­al Demo­crat­ic vote.

In swing states like Iowa and Nevada, where Demo­crats hold le­gis­lat­ive ma­jor­it­ies by just a single seat, this new or­gan­iz­ing ad­vant­age may prove de­cis­ive in ac­tiv­at­ing grow­ing Latino and oth­er minor­ity com­munit­ies, bring­ing them in­to the Demo­crat­ic fold and the vot­ing booth. But the Grass­roots Vic­tory Pro­gram’s im­pact ex­tends well bey­ond Amer­ica’s tra­di­tion­al swing states. The Grass­roots Vic­tory Pro­gram is also build­ing field in­fra­struc­ture in red states such as Kan­sas and Utah and emer­ging battle­grounds such as Geor­gia and In­di­ana.

Geor­gia, in fact, per­fectly il­lus­trates how Grass­roots Vic­tory Pro­gram or­gan­izers and Demo­crat­ic le­gis­lat­ive can­did­ates can loc­al­ize out­reach to rap­idly grow­ing minor­ity com­munit­ies who’ve been mar­gin­al­ized by Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship in these states. Nearly two-thirds of the Peach State’s pop­u­la­tion growth in the past dec­ade has come from Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos. By 2016, Geor­gia is pro­jec­ted to add nearly 400,000 more eli­gible Latino, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and Asi­an voters than it had in the last elec­tion. If our party reaches out at the in­di­vidu­al level now and en­cour­ages more of these voters to par­ti­cip­ate in this year’s midterm le­gis­lat­ive races, Geor­gia Demo­crats can ex­pand the Demo­crat­ic voice in their Le­gis­lature and hasten the day when their state be­comes a true pres­id­en­tial battle­ground.

We’ve passed the point of spec­u­lat­ing about how demo­graph­ic change may re­shape Amer­ica and be­gun to wit­ness it. Lay­er­ing a mar­riage of smart data and tra­di­tion­al or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciples on top of that shift could pro­duce a sea-change in state le­gis­lat­ive polit­ics this fall.

Mi­chael Sar­geant is ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Demo­crat­ic Le­gis­lat­ive Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, an arm of the Demo­crat­ic Party charged with win­ning state le­gis­lat­ive ma­jor­it­ies for Demo­crats.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS?The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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