How Michigan Ended Minority Rule

On April 8, one day before the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated a ban on abortion from 1864, Donald Trump said the issue of abortion rights should be left to the states and “whatever they decide must be the law of the land.”

Mr. Trump’s statement — and the outcry over the Arizona decision — reinforced how state-level policy on issues like abortion can have major national ramifications. Though states’ rights have long been a rallying cry for conservatives opposed to the federal government’s policies on issues like civil rights and abortion, today the states offer Democrats the best opportunity to protect democracy and expand key rights.

For years Democrats have prioritized federal elections over state ones, but they should look to the states as the most effective avenue for progressive reform, especially since state power is very likely to only increase even as the federal system is stacked against Democrats. The Electoral College and the Senate are biased toward whiter, more rural, and more conservative areas while the Supreme Court is a product of those two skewed institutions.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, in striking down federal abortion and voting rights, has delegated a tremendous amount of authority to the states and unexpectedly given progressive reformers a new opening to protect such rights at the state level. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, for example, seven states have voted directly on abortion, and in all seven states — red and blue alike — abortion rights advocates have won.

Michigan is one promising national model for how state-level activists can retake the power of their state governments. This notion would have been laughable a decade ago. After Republicans took control of the state following the 2010 election, Michigan was a bastion of minority rule. Over the course of the decade, Republicans routinely received a minority of votes for the State Legislature but won a majority of seats thanks to extreme partisan gerrymandering that allowed them to “cram ALL of the Dem garbage,” in the words of one G.O.P. staffer, into as few seats as possible.

It was the failure of Michigan’s broken political institutions that led to an unlikely movement for reform. Two days after the 2016 election, dismayed by the Michigan government’s detachment from voters, Katie Fahey, a 27-year-old political novice from the Grand Rapids area, posted on Facebook before leaving for work: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” She added a smiley face emoji for a millennial touch.

Back to top button