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Indivisible States: How State Legislatures Can Resist the Trump Agenda

Regardless of the strategy we take at the federal level, there remain important opportunities for constituents to act both defensively and proactively at the state level. There are even some issues that we can better address at the state level — issues like redistricting, voting rights, abortion access, police violence, and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. States are often able to act more quickly than the federal government, which means that for the next few years, they will be the primary vehicle for positive progressive change — as well as being absolutely critical for long term progressive powerbuilding. In short, we need to conduct effective advocacy in our home states if we are ever going to achieve the transformational changes that we want to see.

How Are States Critical for The Resistance?

  1. States can resist the Trump agenda. In a political climate where the federal government is controlled by an opposing party that is dead-set on attacking our values, it is critical that we exercise our power where we have the most leverage, which for some of us is actually at the state level. The implementation of federal policies often falls to the states, and many of the Trump administration’s harmful policies can be directly countered by state action. State legislatures can also proactively restore protections that have been undone by the Trump administration.

  2. States allow us to go on offense. State policy allows the progressive movement to do more than just play defense — it allows us to demonstrate the ideals that we as progressives stand for: a clean environment, economic justice, health care for all, racial equity, a true representative democracy, gender and sexual equity, and civil rights. Enacting truly progressive policies is a form of resistance that isn’t possible in Washington for now because, as long as Trump is still in the White House, he won’t sign anything we want.

  3. States are the model for progressivism. State legislatures are often the laboratory for leading edge policy change. Ideally, we would like our progressive ideals cemented into strong federal law, but we often need to prove their success at a more local level to build the evidence base and momentum for federal change. If we can successfully implement legislation based on progressive ideals at the state level, we provide a model for other state and national legislators to follow our lead.

  4. State advocacy is necessary to “unrig” the system. The electoral system has been purposefully and unfairly stacked against Democrats at the state level via voter suppression and gerrymandering. To fully unrig the system, we’ll need to address many of these issues at the state level.

  5. Constituents often have much more leverage at the state level. For a number of reasons, state legislators are less likely than Members of Congress to hear from their constituents on a given issue, and much more likely to hear from corporate and special interest lobbyists. However, this presents an opportunity: because state legislators often aren’t hearing directly from their constituents, a small amount of engagement can make a huge difference. A typical U.S. House member has around 700,000 constituents; a state legislator represents as few as 3,291 constituents. Due to this, as few as 100 coordinated calls to a state legislator’s office can get noticed and make an impact on their decisions.

What Tools Can States Use to Resist Trump?

  • State legislation. State legislatures can pass laws that advance progressive ideals or restore protections undone by Trump. In order to become law, legislation must be introduced, debated, and voted on by elected state representatives and signed by the Governor. For example, after the Trump administration opened our coasts to offshore drilling and repealed net neutrality, states have been considering legislation that would ban drilling off of their coasts and restore the free and open internet.

  • Gubernatorial executive orders. Much like presidential executive orders, governors are often able to take some actions unilaterally via executive order. Executive orders do not require legislative approval, though they are subject to legislative review in some states. For example, after the FCC repealed net neutrality, governors from multiple states signed executive orders that would prevent their state government from doing business with any internet service provider that was not net-neutral.

  • Attorney general lawsuits. States’ attorneys general have been racking up lawsuits against the Trump administration left and right in an attempt to protect their residents from the harmful policies being implemented in Washington. In 2017 alone, California sued the Trump administration 24 times.

  • Ballot initiatives. Ballot initiatives allow voters to bypass the legislature and vote on legislation or constitutional amendments directly at the ballot box. By gathering a certain number of petition signatures (the number varies by state), constituents can either propose brand new legislation or hold a referendum (citizen vote) on recently passed legislation. In both cases, the decision is placed before the voters. Ballot initiatives are a tool available in 24 states.

How Can Different States Strategically Resist Trump?

As we’ll outline in the next section, no two states are exactly alike. Depending on the partisan composition of your state legislature, you may need to pursue one of a few different strategies for your state advocacy.

Blue State Victories Add Pressure on Congress to Advance Issues

Blue states can serve as a testing ground for new ideas, and victories at the state level can help build momentum for eventual federal adoption of an idea. Blue states are the places where we can advance progressive priorities like bold renewable energy standards, universal access to health care, sanctuary protections for undocumented immigrants, money bail reform, a real living minimum wage, ending police violence, and lots of other things. If you live in a blue state, consider working on bold progressive policies that will move the needle to the left and restore protections that the Trump administration has taken away. There are 14 Democratic trifecta states where both chambers of the legislature and the governorship is under Democratic control (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington).

Purple States Come in Many Different Flavors

Some states may have one party in control of both chambers of the legislature, but the other party in control of the governorship. In other states, the two chambers of the legislatures may be controlled by different parties. The strategy for your advocacy may vary based on the exact nature of the partisan makeup of your legislature and the margins of party control. There are 13 states with split control of legislative chambers and/or governorships (Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin).

  • With split chambers and the GOP in control by a small margin, you may be able to pressure a handful of selected Republican targets to flip and vote the way you want. Virginia Indivisibles successfully flipped four Republican state senators in favor of Medicaid expansion in 2018 and were able to secure health care for 400,000 Virginians!

  • In a state with a red legislature and a blue governor, you should make sure to pressure your Democratic governor to veto any bad legislation, and encourage him or her to act via gubernatorial executive order on certain issues that are within their power.

  • In a state with a blue legislature and a red governor, it’s possible (and often likely) that the Republican governor will veto important progressive legislation. It’s critical in that case to try to pass bills with a veto-proof majority, which isn’t always possible (but has been in some states, like Maryland). A Republican governor in a primarily blue state may also be receptive to media and constituent pressure around certain issues.

Red Trifecta States Have Been Central to The Gop Strategy

For decades, organizations like ALEC have pushed regressive legislation to restrict the rights of their residents and entrench GOP power through voter suppression and gerrymandering. These attacks on our democracy didn’t start with Trump — they’ve been tested on a smaller scale in red states over the past few decades.

The results have been damaging for democracy and deeply harmful to marginalized communities. If you live in a red trifecta state, you know what we mean: your legislature has likely already passed bad bills that suppress the vote and harm the most vulnerable members of your community — things like reducing access to the polls; voter suppression through ID laws that seek to further disenfranchise people of color; restricting access to abortion; removing protections for the LGBTQ+ community; and attacks on immigrant communities.

It’s absolutely critical to show up in solidarity with those communities to fight back and push for reforms that would undo the GOP’s attacks on the democratic system. Since you’ll be exercising your power more locally, your chances of successfully playing defense and defeating bad legislation is much higher. Furthermore, advocacy and electoral work go hand in hand; you can make inroads by working on state legislative elections to slowly change the composition of your legislature and make it less red over time. There are 22 Republican trifecta states where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming).

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Indivisible States: Empowering States to Resist the Trump Agenda by Indivisible Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.