Chin Up: The Democrats Just Had a Big Voting Rights Win | Opinion

For most Democrats, last week was downright depressing. It started with President Biden's impassioned plea to Senators to end the filibuster in order to pass two desperately-needed election protection bills. It ended with Senator Kyrsten Sinema killing that idea in the cradle.

For those who see the threat of a total meltdown of American democracy as very real and very near, it was a body blow. Ranging from deeply frustrated to downright enraged, many assumed that all hope was lost.

They were wrong.

Yes, losing those bills hurts. And Democrats shouldn't give up on the federal level: The torrent of Republican laws to suppress votes and subvert elections remains a clear and present danger to American democracy, and perhaps to our the ability to hold together the country itself. But for those who were paying attention, there was actually a significantly more hopeful development last week.

On Friday, the Ohio Supreme Court threw out the Republican legislature's ludicrously gerrymandered congressional maps. It wasn't the final word—but the final result is going to be a lot fairer than if self-serving politicians had had their way.

There's a lesson here. If Democrats can pick their chins up and pause outrage-tweeting for a moment, they will see that the Ohio win didn't just fall out of the sky. It will make a meaningful difference in making elections actually reflect the will of the voters, and can be replicated around the country. The Democrats may not be able to pass a big, sweeping federal law to comprehensively stop abuses. But that doesn't mean they can't grit and grind their way to achieve many similar protections in the states.

Biden addressed rising Covid cases
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the remarks President Biden urged unvaccinated individuals to seek the vaccine and highlighted his plan to distribute free COVID-19 tests and masks to the American people. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

What exactly did Democrats in Ohio do? "This happened because of five years of work by a lot of people," says former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who helped orchestrate the effort. "Grassroots groups, good government groups, the party, we all worked together to fight back."

As Pepper chronicles in his book Laboratories of Autocracy, a small group started out with a meeting in 2017 to devise a detailed roadmap. They recognized that by so flagrantly gorging on political gerrymandering, state Republicans had angered and energized a cadre of activists, and made moderate voters more receptive to a message of clean, fair elections.

But how to leverage that? It's hard to overcome the Catch-22 of election reform. After all, how can you pass anti-gerrymandering law in a gerrymandered legislature? How do you win races to end the rules that are designed to keep you from winning races? So the group worked around the legislature by drafting a constitutional amendment. In six months, a volunteer army gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures and forced a measure onto the ballot.

They didn't just win; they crushed. The new constitutional language, which voters ultimately approved in 2018 in a 75-25 landslide, was straightforward, clear, and fair. It required both parties to have a say in new maps, and that "the general assembly shall not pass a plan that unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents."

But that's not the end of the story. It's one thing to write a law, another for courts to enforce it. Ohio is a state that elects its Supreme Court Justices. So the coalition honed in on those races to make sure the new law would have a fighting chance. In 2018 and 2020, Democratic-endorsed candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court won three out of four statewide elections, moving the court from 7-0 Republican-favored judges to 4-3, even as Ohio went for Donald Trump by 8 points in 2020. And it was that new court makeup that last week upheld the ballot measure, preventing an obscenely rigged and undemocratic result.

"We got those wins by doing what the Right does all the time, focusing on where the power was, and aggressively explaining the stakes to voters," says Ohio-based Democratic consultant Cliff Schecter, who advised independent efforts to boost those campaigns. "Sometimes the job is electing a President, but much more often it's more local and less glamorous. And you know what? Every bit as important."

And why should Democrats think that they can take this blueprint to other states? Because they already have. "The hidden story of the 2018 midterm elections was just how many pro-democracy election reform measures passed on the state level," says political scientist William Ewell.

In addition to the Ohio language, ballot measures addressing issues like gerrymandering, voting rights, and campaign funding romped in 2018. They won 14 out of 16 attempts, even in deep red states like Utah and Missouri. Ten of the measures passed in states Donald Trump won in 2016, including Missouri (Trump + 17), Utah (Trump + 18), and even North Dakota (Trump + 35). In the four states (in addition to Ohio) that passed redistricting ballot measures, those referenda ran an average of 17 points ahead of the leading Democratic candidates, drawing substantial moderate and Republican support.

Of course, we need federal action to protect constitutional rights. But federal laws are not everything. They are not even sufficient. "If all we do is protect at the federal level and continue to do politics the way we're doing it, we will lose," observes Pepper.

So don't lose patience, and don't lose hope. Look to the states. Work the problem.

Matt Robison is a writer, podcast host, and former congressional staffer.

The views in this article are the writer's own.