The Blue State Strategy for Progressive Renewal

By Steven Hill, The Nation, October 15, 2012 (printed edition)

It is hard to recall a time when politics at the national level was so utterly paralyzed. Even when the Democratic White House and Senate align their stars, which has been difficult because of the anti-democratic filibuster, the Tea Party–dominated House is gleefully positioned to kill everything. Given the improbability of Democrats retaking the House in November, that harsh reality seems unlikely to change.

But in some states, there is another option. Even following the 2010 election meltdown, there are eleven states where Democrats have won the trifecta, meaning they control the governor’s seat as well as both houses of the legislature. Those states are California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, Arkansas, West Virginia, Hawaii, Delaware and Vermont. (After the election the list might include Colorado, New York and Oregon, though Democrats could lose Arkansas and Washington.) In these states, there are not enough obstructionist Republicans or Fox News dittoheads to spoil progressive change. The only obstacle is the Democratic Party itself.

So imagine you are the governor of one of these trifecta states. What agenda would you join your legislature in pursuing? There is plenty of low-hanging legislative fruit that Democrats ought to grab, pronto. The best of these proposals are not merely important from a fairness and good-government standpoint; if enacted, they would benefit the Democratic Party by leveling a playing field that is tilted toward the Republicans. As a bonus, they would become models for the federal level, in case Congress ever emerges from the quicksand in which it is stuck.

Automatic Voter Registration

Nearly a quarter of eligible voters—at least 51 million Americans—are not registered, according to a recent Pew Center study. Despite claims by conservatives like George Will, who has written that the reason people don’t vote is that they’re satisfied with the status quo, we know that the unregistered come disproportionately from the ranks of racial minorities, the poor and the young. Those demographic groups have the fewest reasons to feel satisfied—and when they do vote, they are the most reliable Democratic voters in the country. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll found that Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney by 43 percent to 14 percent among the nearly two in five eligible voters who are likely to sit out the election.

The norm in established democracies around the world is to register all citizens automatically when they reach the age of eligibility. There are no forms to fill out; eligible voters are simply assigned a unique identifier, like a Social Security number, which follows them for life. When the government takes responsibility for achieving 100 percent registration, there are no more partisan battles over who is or is not registered, and registration status is removed from the contested terrain of politics. Those primarily concerned with reducing voter fraud should support universal registration as well, since the Pew Center study found that it would resolve approximately 24 million inaccurate registrations.

By enacting automatic voter registration, trifecta-state Democrats would not only enroll millions of eligible citizens; those newly registered would be strongly inclined to vote Democratic. The Republicans certainly know this, so they have pushed voter ID requirements and fought most attempts to expand voter registration (such as election day registration). When I directed the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, we sponsored a bill in the California legislature to enact automatic voter registration. The Republican caucus fiercely opposed it, calling it “un-American.” Even more disappointing, Democrats—including the usually progressive secretary of state—failed to embrace it. To their credit, California Democrats recently passed a measure to enact election day registration. That will certainly help. But it won’t come close to achieving universal registration.

Understandably, Democrats and civil rights leaders have been fighting GOP attempts to enact voter ID laws. But if voter IDs were coupled with a unique identifier for every eligible voter, they could be used to implement automatic voter registration. By making lemonade from the lemons, Democrats would enfranchise millions of minorities and youth—far more than the number who are likely to stay home because of voter ID laws.

Escaping the Winner-Take-All Box

In our geographically based system, all voters are not equal. Because of partisan demographics (i.e., where people live), Democratic voters are overly concentrated. This becomes a big problem when using a single-seat, winner-take-all method for electing representatives, because it lowers participation and tilts the field toward Republicans.

The problem is easy to see in urban areas, where progressive votes are heavily concentrated. Urban Democrats win with huge majorities, but winning a district with 80 percent doesn’t help the party gain any more seats than winning with 60 percent. It just bleeds more Democratic voters out of the surrounding districts.

Yet it’s not just urban districts that reflect the tilted partisan landscape. FairVote, a nonprofit policy institute, has run simulations showing that partisan demographics give the GOP a natural, built-in edge in a majority of House districts. For example, if Obama and Romney tie in the national popular vote, those same votes cast through Congressional districts would make Romney the winner in 245 House districts, compared with Obama’s 190. That means Democrats can win a House majority only if their candidates win dozens of districts won by Romney, a steep uphill climb.

The gerrymandering of legislative district lines contributes to this bias, but only marginally—the big culprit is winner-take-all districts, combined with partisan demographics. The Republican edge, which also exists in most state legislatures, has been consistent for decades. But it was masked by the success of Southern Democrats in Republican districts, which was a legacy of Jim Crow. Today its impact is like having a footrace in which one side starts out ten yards ahead of the other.

Democratic leaders have tried to address this through redistricting, but increasingly they are losing the battle. In addition, their redistricting plans have been greatly complicated by their laudable attempts to elect more racial minorities. Unfortunately, districts that have been drawn with huge majorities of minorities have left fewer Democratic voters in the surrounding districts. Republicans, once the biggest opponents of such voting-rights remedies, have become enthusiastic boosters because they’ve allowed the GOP to increase its representation at the expense of Democrats.

The solution is to move beyond single-seat districts to multi-seat districts, and to organize elections according to the rules of proportional representation (PR) rather than winner-take-all. Doing so would make more voters’ trips to the polling booth meaningful. It would also give Democrats a more level playing field and help resolve the voting-rights tensions that have arisen within the party’s big tent.

For example, consider the difference that modestly sized districts of between three and five representatives elected by PR would make in the South. The “Solid South” used to be a Democratic stronghold, but now it’s Republican country. Democrats as well as African-Americans have been hurt by the near disappearance of an endangered species: the moderate Southern Democrat. Following the 2010 election, the thirty-seven House seats in the Deep South were held by twenty-eight conservative Republicans (twenty-seven of them white), none of whom are at risk of losing in 2012. Democrats elected eight African-Americans and a single white Congressman.Using proportional representation with three- to five-seat districts would alter this landscape fundamentally. FairVote’s simulations show that a typical three-seat Southern district elected by PR (which would require winning 25 percent of the vote to gain a seat) would likely elect one white conservative Republican, one black liberal Democrat, and a more centrist Republican or Democrat. Besides electing more black Democrats and white moderates than the current method, such a plan almost certainly would elect more women (currently holding two seats), and perhaps more black Republicans, without gerrymandering a single district.

This new approach would have similar effects at the state level, producing representation that more accurately reflects the demographics of today’s South. The resulting cross-fertilization in Republican and Democratic caucuses would lessen some of the polarization and rancor currently infecting state and federal legislatures.

Other regions of the country would see similar results. In New England, moderate Rockefeller Republicans, once a granitic mainstay of Yankee politics, could be viable again. FairVote’s simulations show that Democrats would have more electoral opportunities in every state that has three or more House districts. Passing such “full representation” plans would be fair and right, and it would benefit Democrats. Another win-win.

Public Financing and Free Media Time

A third area to target is campaign finance reform. As the economic collapse of 2008 showed, when big money dominates the political process, our nation suffers dramatically. Moreover, Democrats have a harder time competing with Republicans and conservative Super PACs in the money chase, more so following Citizens United. That decision was one of the Supreme Court’s most unpopular in years, so legislative efforts to roll it back would be popular. Many states have already undertaken countermeasures, like supporting stricter federal disclosure laws and a constitutional amendment against corporate personhood.

But it would be more immediately effective to enact public financing and free media at the state level. Public financing could be paid for in ways that don’t hit the public purse too hard: fees charged to political consultants and PACs, sin taxes and contributions from citizens via tax rebates. Requiring television and radio broadcasters—which use the public’s airwaves free of charge—to provide free media time has always been a popular idea, though clever ways would have to be found at the state level to get around federal primacy over media regulation.

Besides those three reforms, others are possible. Measures supporting a compact among states to elect the president directly by a national popular vote have been enacted by states with 132 electoral votes—49 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate it (this does not require a constitutional amendment; states are allowed to decide how to award their electors within the electoral college method, and can choose to award them to the winner of the national popular vote). Ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), already on the books in San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and elsewhere, allows voters to rank a first, second and third choice, empowering citizens across the spectrum to vote their conscience without worrying about the spoiler effect. In partisan races, it would prevent a center-left split vote like the Gore-Nader clash that plagued the 2000 election.

Delivering on the ‘Blue State’ Society

Trifecta-state Democrats need not limit themselves to electoral reforms, of course. They could also advance proposals targeting the economic crisis, climate change and healthcare, showing voters that Democrats have a forward-looking vision and are capable of delivering tangible results.

Following North Dakota’s lead, trifecta-state Democrats could establish a publicly owned state bank. Every dollar of profit would flow back into state coffers, directly supporting the needs of the state in ways that private banks never will. Several blue states have introduced such bills, but they are proceeding at a glacial pace. Hawaii’s bill for a state-owned bank also proposes relief for homeowners facing foreclosure. In cases in which the bank holding the mortgage cannot prove its ownership and right to foreclose—which is much of the time—foreclosure would be stayed, and Hawaii’s state bank would offer to buy the property. The state bank could then rent the property back to the owner/occupant on reasonable terms.

Another promising example: a market-based boost for alternative energy known as the “feed-in tariff.” Pioneered by Germany, feed-in tariffs require utilities that sell energy to households and businesses to pay three to four times more per kilowatt-hour to energy producers using sustainable sources (such as wind and solar) than to those using dirtier sources (such as oil and coal). This creates an instant market for renewable energy and leads to more private investment without any government subsidy. It would also allow households that produce their own renewable energy to sell their excess back to the grid.

For other ideas with strong potential, trifecta-state progressives can turn to their neighbors: California has enacted an energy cap-and-trade program; Vermont Democrats have made great strides in enacting universal healthcare; a few blue states have enacted civil rights laws for gay rights and marriage. The recently launched ALICE “model” legislative database—a progressive counter to the conservative, pro-corporate ALEC database that aims to be a one-stop clearinghouse for progressive best practices—would greatly aid these efforts.

Trifecta-state Democrats have it within their power to begin playing offense instead of defense. There is no shortage of progressive policies they could pass right now at the state level. And there’s really no excuse for failure. The only obstacle to Democrats in these trifecta states is—Democrats.

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