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Apple '21: Think nationally, vote locally — State elections matter more than you think

The next 50 days may prove to be among the most consequential in American history, the last chance to reverse the erosion of democracy and loss of international partnership and standing over which President Trump has presided.

To be sure, the presidential and senate elections will be key to ushering in a new era of American politics that is representative of all Americans and their values, not just Trump’s base. But in the rush to focus our frustration and energy toward influencing federal elections, we cannot ignore vital state elections, which can have a powerful, oft-undiscussed impact on democratic practices and policies for years to come.

One of the most impactful ways that state elections can determine our country’s democratic future is through their indirect impact on redistricting. In at least 30 states, state legislatures are the primary group responsible for redistricting, a process in which congressional and electoral districts are redrawn following each decade’s U.S. Census updates. Allowing elected representatives to choose whom they represent and who will elect them in future elections is already a conflict of interest, and unsurprisingly, many politicians use it to advance their own party’s interests over the goals of their constituents in a practice commonly referred to as gerrymandering. Simply put, gerrymandering is the practice of the party in power drawing maps during redistricting that will allow members of their party to win more seats (both in the state and in Congress) in the future. It is one of the most anti-democratic practices in the United States; at its core, it fundamentally alters how much your voice counts.

After President Obama’s 2008 victory, there was widespread backlash against the Democratic party. Democrats lost 60 seats in Congress in 2010, but even more importantly, they lost over 680 state legislative seats and 21 legislative chambers. The sheer losses were compounded by the timing: Congressional and state districts are redrawn every 10 years, and Democratic defeats on the state level in 2010 enabled newly-created Republican majorities to redraw (read: gerrymander) districts throughout the country. Because of this, 2010 was something of a death knell for progressive or liberal policies in many states.

While both parties have been known to gerrymander, since the Republican’s success redrawing electoral districts in their favor in 2010, they have benefited far more substantially from partisan gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2018, Pennsylvania had its map redrawn, as the state supreme court struck down its existing maps because it considered it to be a Republican partisan gerrymander. Similarly, North Carolina was ordered this past year to redraw its maps, as the Republican state legislature had drawn an “extreme partisan gerrymander.” And in Wisconsin, in 2018, Democrats running for the State Assembly won 53 percent of the vote, but gained only 36 percent of the seats. All of these examples suggest the blatant abuse of power in which these elected officials have engaged, yet in 2019 the United States Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is a political question, and thus beyond the reach of federal courts. This means that unless we flip state legislatures in places like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin (all of which are competitive), Republicans will be able to gerrymander in 2021, assuring another 10 years of Republican control.

The prospect of gerrymandering alone is not what makes state legislatures so important. State police powers are broad, and depending on which party controls a state’s government, the lives of people in one state can be vastly different from those in another. For example, several states in the past few years have passed so-called ‘heartbeat’ bills, which would ban any abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat (usually about six weeks into the pregnancy). These bills are in direct conflict with Roe’s ruling that abortions must be allowed until the point of viability, between 24 to 28 weeks gestation. While they have been temporarily blocked by a federal court, they could eventually reach the Supreme Court and lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, especially now, with Republicans eager to nominate a pro-life justice to the Court in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. And many of these red states have introduced bills that would take it a step further and ban all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned. In at least one of those states, Ohio, the control of the state legislative chambers is in play in 2020. If Democrats flip it, they will be able to pass legislation that protects women’s and reproductive rights in the state.

Wisconsin, considered a federal and state legislative “super state” (ones that will be key to flip) by organizations like Swing Left, is another example of the power of state legislatures. Last November, Governor Tony Evers called a special election on background checks for guns — a policy that 80 percent of Wisconsin voters support. In addition, he wanted the state legislature to pass a red flag law, which would allow law enforcement to revoke temporarily the gun rights of individuals deemed a threat. In response, both the state’s Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate convened, for 15 and 30 seconds respectively, before adjourning without further debate.

Not all state legislatures act in bad faith, and we should pay close attention to the positive role states can have in strengthening democratic practices. States have in recent years led the charge on many progressive issues, whether it is marijuana legalization, independent redistricting commissions or medicaid expansion. In Virginia in 2019, Democrats flipped both the House of Delegates and the State Senate. Since then, Democrats repealed the state’s voter ID law (which are inherently discriminatory against people of color and low-income people), passed numerous gun control laws (including a red flag law), raised the minimum wage, eliminated some abortion restrictions, passed a wide-reaching LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill and more. Placing an increased emphasis on state legislatures and electing Democrats will not only prevent states from enacting bad policies, but will allow for progress in those states, changing the lives of many for the better.

To truly address all the issues in this country, it’s not enough to defeat Trump and take control of the Senate. State and local officials often play much more of a role in people’s daily lives, and Democrats have a rare opportunity to flip legislatures in the Rust Belt, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia. It is imperative for the long-term future of our country that the media and voters give these state elections the attention they deserve.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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