Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy in 2019

Written By: Nick Licata

What does a win look like?

Seeing a win depends on who’s looking at it. I take the viewpoint of a Pragmatic Progressive. I define a pragmatist as someone who sees that a path forward consists of one step at a time, and that small steps are meaningless compromises if they are not followed up with another step, which goes forward with the same principles.

And what about being a Progressive? Historically the progressive movement grew out of the urban areas in the early 1900s. It pursued reforming government so that it would be more accountable for providing better environmental, social and economic conditions. Its message is the same today, although I would add safeguarding liberty. Promoting these objectives will attract people from across the political spectrum and improve everyone’s quality of life. That movement is afoot today in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana in trying to achieve more accountable and representative state governments.

Why are 3 Southern States in Play this Year?

I found examples of progressive successes in these three states; the only state’s holding elections in 2019 for their state legislators. All of their state senators are up four-year terms, as are the representatives in Louisiana and Mississippi, while Virginia’s representatives will serve two-year terms. Mississippi and Louisiana’s Governors and all of their state-wide executive positions will also be voted on. The total of their legislators is only a fraction of the 5,000 state legislators who will be elected in the 2020 elections, nevertheless, they could shape the national 2020 elections by providing a winning strategy for promoting fair redistricting and greater voter access.

Many residents in these three states have limited access to the ballot box and live in gerrymandered voting districts that favor Republicans winning. Since they controlled the state governments, they were able to draw the state legislative boundaries to their advantage. If voter participation can be expanded in some of the most voting-restricted states in our nation, the path toward electoral wins in 2020 for more representative, responsive state governments will have begun.

At first glance, the political terrain of Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana

is similar. In each, the Republicans control both legislative chambers, albeit they have only a one or two seat majority in Virginia’s legislatures, while in Louisiana and Mississippi they have supermajorities in both chambers. All had been required to receive advance federal approval to change their election laws under the Voting Rights Act because their racial minorities faced barriers to votingThat obligation in the Act was nullified when the Supreme Court ‘s five conservative justices ruled that racial discrimination was no longer a problem.

Limited Voter Access

None of these three states have any of the following practices that encourage voter participation: Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Legislation to enact them has been consistently blocked by the Republicans.

In this year’s Mississippi House of Representatives four different bills, introduced by four different representatives, promoting automatic voter registration failed to even be considered in committee. In Virginia the response was the same, four automatic voter registration bills failed in committee, as did six no-excuse absentee voting — early voting bills and seven vote-by-mail ones. The same experience is expected in the Louisiana Legislature once it convenes in April.

One critical change that would increase voter turnout, particularly among youth, is to adopt automatic voter registration (AVR) when applying for a driver’s license for example. The nonprofit Center for American Progress released a study finding that the percentage of young voters dramatically increased in Oregon and California after they adopted AVR. As of the beginning of 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only seven states have AVR, none in the south. With a citizen’s grassroots movement, Virginia, Mississippi or Louisiana could join that list.

Gerrymandered Districts Have Led to One Party Rule

Achieving fair state and congressional district boundaries is the basis for having citizens being fairly represented in their state legislatures and Congress. That will likely not be achieved in Mississippi and Louisiana until the Democrats control at least one of their chambers. Republicans have controlled the state governments in all three states since 2010. As a result, they gerrymandered districts to their benefit, effectively barring Democratic and black community voters from being fairly represented in state government and Congress.

Before the Republican landslide that swept across the nation, halfway through President Obama’s first term, Democrats controlled both chambers from 1992 to 2009 in Louisiana and Mississippi. Since then Republicans have dominated both chambers. Party control over Virginia’s chambers has been more divided with the Democrats controlling both chambers only from 1992 to 1997, with the Republicans more often controlling one of the chambers and the governorship than the Democrats.

Although Virginia was considered one of the most gerrymandered states, thanks to citizen organizations, like OneVirginia2021 and New Virginia Majority, their state legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. More information on how that victory was accomplished is covered in my next piece in this series on Identifying a Winnable Southern State Strategy.

Three Paths to Stopping Gerrymandering

The Brennan Center for Justice, after interviewing a diverse group of more than 100 stakeholders using commissions for redistricting maps, concluded that commissions could significantly improve satisfaction across the stakeholder spectrum in achieving better representation than what is provided through legislatures gerrymandering districts. They did caution that commissions had to be structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.

There are only 3 political paths that can lead to creating such commissions: by a direct vote of the populace, by order of the courts, or by electing representatives and a governor who agree to establish one. In most states, the governor can veto a legislature’s proposed redistricting plan. In Louisiana and Virginia, a governor’s veto applies to both state and congressional districts, while in Mississippi the governor can only veto plans for drawing congressional districts.

This introductory piece is followed by three more pieces describing how citizens are applying these strategies in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Their efforts are not grabbing the national headlines since they are overshadowed by Congress’s battle with the President. However, they are laying the groundwork for a systematic alteration in each state’s democratic process so that more citizens have a hand in determining a better future for their families. And by example, they point the way for citizen groups in other states on how they could pursue these changes.