By Douglas Bloomfield
The presidential election sucked up all the political oxygen during the past year, with a few breaths left over for Senate and House races. That meant scant focus on countless down-ballot races that can have a long-lasting impact on the nation as well as local communities.
Those contests are particularly critical in the wake of the 2020 census — one of the most controversial and bungled in history — because the legislatures, many just elected, will play a role in drawing congressional maps for the next decade. Early indications indicate a political realignment across the country, notably in favor of suburban and college-educated women and non-white minorities.
House Needs Enlargement
Many of the 435 districts in the House will be reapportioned to reflect population shifts. The number of seats was set at 435 in 1929 when the U.S. population was 121 million; today it is over 330 million, with each representing about 750,000 constituents. There may – should—be a move next year to enlarge the House to make it more representative.
In most cases, state legislatures will be redrawing— often gerrymandering—congressional districts. Many of those lawmakers will be carving out districts for themselves, their friends and their party. Today 198 House members are former state legislators, as are 46 senators.
That is another big reason to pay more attention to those down-ballot races.
Donald Trump has been spearheading a voter suppression and intimidation campaign. On Sunday, Nov. 1, he said, “As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” He wants to stop counting mail-in, absentee and early votes. He is fearful that the votes could go against him.
He can send in his lawyers, but the reality is each state makes its own election rules, and it helps to have friends in high places. He does. Like in red states Ohio and Texas, where drop-off boxes for early voting were limited to one per county, regardless of size. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Trump loyalist, declared only one location for Harris County (Houston) with 2.4 million registered voters, a blatant example of voter suppression intended to stifle participation in predominantly Democratic areas.
After the Supreme Court emasculated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Deep South states began erecting new obstacles like ID laws, limited location and availability of polling places, banning early voting, registration requirements, purging of voter rolls and other repressive measures.
In 2018 two-thirds of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to former felons, but right-wing governors and Trump loyalists quickly erected new obstacles. It is no coincidence that many of those ex-felons were poor and disproportionately black and more likely to vote Democratic. It can be easier for some ex-cons to get a gun permit than register to vote.
Election rules are only part of the story. Some of the biggest decisions governing daily life are made at the local level. The most critical now may be responses to the pandemic since the Trump administration early on opted out of a national strategy and handed responsibility to the states.
Long after this crisis, states will still be responsible for providing health care, regulating voting and abortion rights, public safety, gun control, expansion of Medicaid, education, environmental protection, housing and food for the poor and homeless and just about everything else.
One of the few who understands that is former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He is spending $20 million this election cycle on three obscure races in Texas, Arizona and North Carolina that he considers critical to his campaign to help states switch to renewable energy and improve oversight of the oil and gas industry, the Washington Post reported. Often these posts are held by industry people (as they are at the federal level, especially in the Trump Cabinet).
Roles For Jews
The Jewish community may be known to most for its pro-Israel advocacy, but it also plays a crucial role in shaping domestic social policy at the state and local levels. Many agencies, most notably the Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), maintain vigorous interfaith relations programs, engage with activists with shared interest in human rights, civil liberties and community affairs, keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, conduct voter education and lobby state and local governments for welfare and security assistance.
Their role in pro-Israel advocacy is taking on an added responsibility these days as the need arises to educate an upcoming generation of Jews and non-Jews alike. They are dealing increasingly with a generation for whom the Shoah and Israel’s early struggle for survival are ancient history.
Many JCRCs and other groups take upcoming lawmakers and local activists to Israel on missions intended not just to educate them about the Jewish state but also create better understanding of the Jewish community. These people frequently go on to higher office, including becoming governors, Cabinet officers and members of Congress, and the philosophy of the JCRCs is to make friends before you need them by educating them about the community and establishing personal relationships.
Relations between lawmakers and constituents are most productive when the seeds are planted early at the grassroots. As Speaker Tip O’Neill liked to say, “All politics is local.” This week we voted for a president and for a new Congress. And a lot of folks down-ballot. The next election cycle is already underway.