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The local threat to American democracy

Aug 14,2023 - Last updated at Aug 14,2023

BERKELEY — As Texas swoons under an unprecedented heatwave, its governor has signed a “preemption” bill to strip cities like Houston and Dallas from setting standards for local workplaces, including guaranteed water breaks for outdoor workers. The “Texas Regulatory Consistency Act” bars municipal governments from enacting policies that go beyond state law in eight broad areas and voids existing city and local laws that do so. Cities will be subject to lawsuits and damages for discrepancies between their policies and those of the state.

That means the interests of voters in the state’s predominantly Democratic-leaning cities are being trampled by Republican state-level leaders and their business supporters. Worse, the Texas bill is merely the latest in a series of measures by states to preempt the authority of local governments and overrule their voters.

The aim here is both to eliminate specific laws and to decimate local governments’ ability to regulate areas traditionally under their remit. Around the country, preemption is being used to force a deregulatory ideology onto liberal-leaning cities, with the number of such bills having soared from 140 in 2017 to more than 1,000 in 2022 (the number for this year has already hit 650).

The targeted cities represent the majority of voters on key issues like abortion, gun control, criminal-justice reform, the minimum wage and fair working conditions and voting rights. In Texas, for example, a majority of voters believe that local governments should control matters of economic justice.

But, as in other Republican-controlled states, extremists, business groups and special interests have prevailed over the will of the people. According to the Centre for Public Integrity, more than 10,000 bills introduced in statehouses between 2010 and 2018 were “copied” from templates provided by special interests, with over 20 per cent becoming law.

Republicans and their donors and allies are also pursuing a coordinated effort to restrict citizens’ rights by limiting the use of ballot initiatives (measures proposed and endorsed directly by citizens), which are currently allowed in 27 states. As of June 2023, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center counts “50 measures that would impact or weaken the ballot initiative process in 14 states,” 45 of which “have been filed through the legislature”.

Likewise, new legal and regulatory challenges are intended to restrict the ballot process, such as by increasing the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative, or by raising the voter-approval threshold (ballot initiatives often pass with slim majorities). For example, Arizona adopted a 60 per cent approval requirement (through a ballot initiative) in 2022, and Missouri is considering a proposal to raise the threshold to two-thirds. It would join nine other states that already have supermajority requirements.

But the most egregious attack on the ballot-initiative process is coming in Ohio, where a coalition of lawmakers and special interests has successfully lobbied to hold a special election (on August 8) to prevent Ohioans from voting on a proposed reproductive-freedom amendment. Clearly, successful ballot initiatives to protect reproductive rights in several states, including heavily Republican-controlled ones, in 2022 have rattled the party’s legislators.

The preemption strategy is most disturbing in states with heavily gerrymandered districts (those apportioned to favor a certain party), where an unrepresentative group of elected officials wield disproportionate power relative to their voting populations. Of the ten most gerrymandered states, nine have Republican-controlled statehouses and elected officials who are intent on pursuing an agenda that the majority of their citizens oppose.

Fortunately, in a surprise verdict, the US Supreme Court recently ruled that Alabama’s congressional maps, which were redrawn after the 2020 census, violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting the influence of the state’s Black voters. That said, the fight has only just begun. The rise of preemption measures, ballot restrictions, gerrymandering, and attacks on voting rights increasingly threatens American democracy at the state and local levels.

We must ensure that these efforts fail. In Arizona, where the Republican-controlled legislature is bent on undermining free and fair elections, the Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, has vetoed more than 100 measures just six months after taking office.

Another defence is to campaign against ballot measures that would create supermajority requirements for future initiatives or increase signature requirements. To that end, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Centre has developed a helpful strategic framework to identify new threats, rightly focusing on communities that have been excluded from power historically.

Another important tactic is direct action by non-profit organisations to develop ballot initiatives on issues that matter to the majority. The Fairness Project, for example, has won 31 of 33 ballot measures since 2015 with an annual budget of less than $10 million, giving an estimated 18 million citizens the opportunity to exercise their Tenth Amendment rights by voting directly on matters that are important to them.

As of June, 40 statewide ballot measures have been certified for inclusion on ballots for the 2024 election cycle. Some of these are pro-democracy, like a proposed ranked-choice voting rule in Nevada and a no-excuse absentee-voting requirement in Connecticut. But many others threaten to erode democracy. These include a measure in Arizona to increase ballot-signature requirements, and a ludicrous requirement in North Dakota that ballot initiatives be approved twice.

The 2024 election cycle will be critical for American democracy. All eyes will naturally be on the presidential race and the contest for control of Congress. But the fight to protect, or subvert, democracy will be no less important at the state and local levels.


Laura Tyson, a former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Board of Advisers at Angeleno Group. Lenny Mendonca, senior partner emeritus at McKinsey & Company, is a former chief economic and business adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom of California and chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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