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The New Faces of State Legislatures

Women made a strong showing in legislative races across the country in this year's midterm elections. Meanwhile, polarization is a renewable resource, Krasner's complaint and annals of election denial.

Members of the Maryland General Assembly's Women's Caucus
Members of the Maryland General Assembly's Women's Caucus. The caucus currently has 78 members out of 188 total members in the General Assembly. (TNS)
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The New Faces of State Legislatures: For a bill to become law in Colorado, it’s going to need support from women. Colorado is now the second state, following Nevada in 2018, to have a majority of its legislative seats won by women. “For the first time in state history, Colorado celebrates a legislature with a majority of women lawmakers, including the most diverse, female-led House leadership team to date,” said incoming state House Speaker Julie McCluskie. “I couldn’t be more proud to lead a caucus that reflects the state we all love.”

Women made a strong showing in legislative contests across the country. They made up nearly a quarter of the total number of lawmakers following the 2008 elections and then remained stuck at that level for the next decade. Finally, in 2018, their share rose to 28 percent. It’s ticked up steadily ever since. Thanks to further gains this year, women will make up just under a third of the nation’s legislators – 2,386 all told, or 32.3 percent of the total. That’s five times the number of women who served back in the 1970s.

In addition, there will be a dozen women serving as governor. That’s a record, too, breaking the previous highwater mark, reached repeatedly over the past 18 years, of nine women serving at any one time.

To borrow a phrase from bumper stickers, representation matters. After women held a majority of seats in the Nevada Legislature, they quickly introduced bills on issues such as sexual assault, sex trafficking, maternal mortality and child marriage. “I can say with 100 percent certainty that we wouldn’t have had these conversations” in the past, Teresa Benitez-Thompson, then the Assembly majority leader, said in 2019. “None of these bills would have seen the light of day.”

In addition to more women, there were record numbers of LGBTQ legislators elected this year — 196, which was a 66 percent increase from the 118 who won in 2020 — along with a record number of Muslims. Where once state Rep. Danica Roem of Virginia drew national attention as the nation's only openly transgender state legislator following her election five years ago, now there will be nine. Scholarly research has shown that legislators from particular demographic groups are much more likely to introduce legislation of particular interest to those groups than your generic white males. That may seem obvious. Just having lawmakers in the room who are not all old white men can change the conversation.

There will be three Black LGBTQ legislators serving in Texas next year. Last year, there were none. “I hope as legislators get to know their new peers, some of the animosity toward our community will begin to fade,” Ricardo Martinez, head of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Texas, told the Dallas Morning News. “It is much harder to run a political crusade against a faceless foe than a neighbor who sits next to you at work."

So, slowly, the faces in state legislatures are changing. But there are a couple of caveats to bear in mind. Over the past decade, the bulk of the nation’s population growth has come thanks to members of racial and ethnic minorities, notably Hispanics. Nevertheless, the number of legislative districts nationwide where minority groups make up a majority of the population has actually dropped, due to redistricting. The Supreme Court appears poised to make Voting Rights Act requirements that encourage the creation of minority opportunity districts a thing of the past.

Women and minorities had better keep pushing to hold power themselves. A study published last month found that policies that are primarily supported by women are less likely to be enacted into law.

A graphic of the U.S. Capitol, with half colored in red the other in blue
Polarization Is a Renewable Resource: By now, it’s not exactly news that American politics is highly polarized. It’s becoming difficult to remember a time of greater bipartisan cooperation, even for us old fogies. A pair of new studies show just how far polarization has gone.

Boris Shor of the University of Houston and Nolan McCarty of Princeton University have come up with polarization measures for legislative behavior that are widely used by other scholars. They update their own findings in a new paper looking at the past couple of decades.

Long story short: Polarization continues to get worse. Median Democrats and Republicans have grown farther apart in terms of how they vote and there’s now hardly any overlap between the parties. Back in 1996, about 14 percent of Democrats voted to the right of the most liberal Republicans and 16 percent of Republicans were to the left of the most conservative Democrats. By 2020, only 0.2 percent of Democrats found room to the right of Republicans, while a barely discernible 0.05 percent of Republicans remained to the left of Democrats.

Shor and McCarty also uncover something unique to states: “While the polarization in the U.S. Congress has been characterized by an asymmetric pattern of GOP movement to the right,” they write, “the predominant asymmetry in the states is one characterized by Democratic movement to the left.”

Their findings are echoed by a new study from the conservative Center for Legal Accountability, a project of the CPAC Foundation and the American Conservative Union Foundation. Examining votes on 3,500 bills across the country, CLA finds that Republican legislators voted a conservative line 81 percent of the time in 2021, compared with 16 percent of the time for Democrats. Their findings show considerable continuing movement apart just from 2020, with the 65 percentage-point divide between members of the two parties at the highest level since CLA began tracking this data back in 2015.

The three most conservative states, based on the bills tracked by CLA, are Alabama, Tennessee and Indiana. The most liberal states are Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island. That seems about right. What’s striking these days is how predictably liberal or conservative a given legislature’s behavior might be. Yet another study, published earlier this year, found that extended single-party dominance of individual states has been the rule rather than the exception in American politics.

Lack of competition is becoming more pronounced, however. Following last month’s elections, a majority of legislatures are set to be controlled by veto-proof majorities.

Party polarization is a force that feeds on itself. As parties move farther apart, extreme partisans like their own party more, while people who aren’t as ideological will still find new reasons to hate the other party. “They will still be closer to their own party, forcing the less extreme voters to adopt a ‘lesser of two evils’ justification for sticking with their party,” said Eric Groenendyk, a political scientist at the University of Memphis.

That’s the “two-party doom loop” American politics is currently trapped in.

District Attorney Larry Krasner
District Attorney Larry Krasner (TNS)
Krasner’s Complaint: Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is arguably the most prominent among the nation’s so-called progressive prosecutors. As such, he’s been a handy target for conservatives looking to blame someone for the city’s high murder rate. But now attacking Krasner is a legal matter, as well as a political one.

Last month, the Pennsylvania House voted to impeach Krasner. Actually removing him from office, however, would require a Senate trial. Krasner filed a lawsuit last Friday, arguing that the clock has run out on his impeachment, since the legislative session in which he was impeached has ended.

Unless a court sides with Krasner and intervenes, an impeachment trial is set for next month. Krasner, who was re-elected last year, calls the effort to remove him part of “an authoritarian effort to nullify elections and to erase votes, and frankly, to undermine the foundations of democracy.”

Meanwhile, the question of who controls the Pennsylvania House is suddenly a live one. Austin Davis resigned from the state House on Wednesday to prepare for his new role as lieutenant governor. That same day, Summer Lee also stepped down since she was just elected to Congress. Their departures, along with the death of Anthony DeLuca, will deprive Democrats of their nominal one-seat majority in the chamber. The party’s expected to win the special elections that will replace these members, but Republicans and Democrats in the meantime are arguing about who should control the body.

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis created a police force earlier this year dedicated to election fraud. (TNS)
Annals of Election Denial: Election denialism is still a thing, but its appeal appears to be waning on the right. The Cochise County, Ariz., board of supervisors voted to certify election results last week, after being ordered to do so by a court. In Luzerne County, Pa., the board of elections also voted to certify results last week in the face of a lawsuit, after failing to meet the state deadline.

There had been no credible allegations of fraud in either county. The failure to certify results in Cochise County threatened to cost Republicans a seat in Congress. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs – certified this week as the winner of the governor’s race – is calling for two of the county supervisors to be investigated by prosecutors.

Voter fraud remains a problem more widely discussed than actualized. Florida, Georgia and Virginia have all created election fraud units, but they haven’t come up with cases to pursue. “I am not aware of any significant detection of fraud on Election Day, but that’s not surprising,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president of the Campaign Legal Center. “The whole concept of voter impersonation fraud is such a horribly exaggerated problem.”

Maybe the lack of real problems is starting to sink in. Just over half of Republican voters (53 percent) say that this year’s elections were conducted well, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a marked improvement from the 21 percent of Republican voters who were satisfied in 2020. It's still a lot lower, however, than the 96 percent of Democrats who were content with election administration this year.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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