Progressives unleash state-level legislation tsunami to combat Republican assault on democracy
Hundreds of Texans attend a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol building in Austin on May 8, 2021 to oppose Republican voter suppression measures. | Aaron Martinez / Austin American-Statesman via AP

In the face of a vicious Republican-orchestrated assault on democratic rights and working-class economic gains, states dominated by Democratic governors and legislatures representing broad multi-racial governing coalitions are pulling in the opposite direction—going all out to expand rights.

And in some GOP-dominated states, voters are taking matters into their own hands to bypass the obstruction and pass referendums initiated by grassroots coalitions of Democratic led-initiatives popular among voters.

Voters will need to oust the Republican Party from power in as many places as possible in 2022 to block and reverse these fascist, authoritarian, and harsh anti-people agendas. Larger Democratic legislative and Congressional majorities will further shift the state and national balance of forces, breaking the logjam against pro-people legislation.

For example, the GOP has introduced 380 voter suppression laws surgically targeting African Americans, Mexican Americans, other voters of color, youth, and people with disabilities, in 47 states. Fourteen states have enacted some 22 separate voter suppression laws, and 61 more bills are currently making their way through 18 state legislatures. Among the new measures are ones allowing the GOP to overturn election results in at least five states and carry out extreme gerrymandering to cement minority rule for perpetuity.

Under these circumstances, the passage of HR 1, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is imperative. For this to happen before the 2022 elections, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will have to be convinced to reform or abolish the filibuster.

In addition to passing extreme voter suppression laws at the state level, the Republican Party is: brutally slashing millions off supplemental unemployment benefits or jobless benefits entirely, denying Medicaid expansion under Obamacare to four million people, passing legislation to outlaw protests, overriding policies of local municipalities, making it harder to adopt statewide referendums, and enacting widespread censorship under the guise of banning “critical race theory.”

Expanding democracy at the state level

But in many states with Democratic majority legislatures and governors reflecting a broad multi-racial governing coalition, the story is different. As of late May, at least 880 bills have been introduced into 49 state legislatures to expand voting rights. Legislators have enacted 28 laws in 14 states (California, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts), led mainly by Democratic governors and legislatures.

Rogelio V. Solis / AP

The new laws codify practices that helped generate a record voter turnout in 2020, including expanding early voting, using ballot drop-boxes and curbside voting, making mail-in voting easier, codifying procedures to cure mistakes in voting, and improving accessibility for voters with disabilities.

Virginia passed a state Voting Rights Act that puts many of these provisions into law and repealed voter ID laws. Along with Illinois, Virginia made Election Day a state holiday. The state VRA adopts the federal Voting Rights Act sections prohibiting racial discrimination. After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted these provisions, the floodgates opened to voter suppression legislation. Under Virginia’s law, local officials would have to get public feedback before making any changes, and the state is empowered to sue local governments over discriminatory practices.

Connecticut is also considering a state voting rights act. In addition, Washington State and New York restored voting rights to people with past felony convictions, and California voters restored voting rights to 50,000 formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions. Illinois will set up voting sites in jails for people awaiting trial.

New York expanded automatic voter registration in the state university system, and Virginia expanded pre-registration to 16-year-olds. Colorado expanded ranked-choice voting, enhanced voter registration on college campuses, and will install polling centers in low turnout areas. Vermont and Nevada will send election ballots to all active voters.

And voting rights groups in Florida are countering GOP voter suppression with plans to place three separate voting rights amendments on the ballot in 2022. If passed, the amendments would allow eligible voters to be automatically registered when they get or renew their driver’s licenses and enable people to register and vote on the same day. A third amendment would undo the action by the GOP legislature to undermine Amendment 4, the referendum voters passed overwhelmingly in 2018 to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

Several states are expanding rights in other areas. Earlier this year, Virginia joined 22 other states and outlawed the death penalty, the first Southern state to do so. Before abolition, Virginia had executed more people than any other state (1,400), and the most people after Texas since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Of the 377 executed since then, 296 were African American.

Protecting workers

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill guaranteeing the rights of laid-off hospitality workers to be recalled in order of seniority. The legislation, called Right to Return, especially helps non-union hotel and gaming industry workers. Similar legislation is pending in other states.

The Illinois general assembly passed legislation to place a referendum on the November 2022 ballot enshrining the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution. The state labor movement spearheaded the bill.

A coalition led by the Montana labor movement defeated an attempt to pass right-to-work (for less) legislation in March despite a GOP governor and a majority state legislature.

Workers and family members take part in a 15-city walkout to demand a $15 minimum wage on May 19, 2021, in front of a McDonalds restaurant in Sanford, Fla. | John Raoux / AP

Eight states are raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York—plus Washington, D.C. Florida voters adopted a $15/hr minimum wage through a referendum in 2020. Rhode Island adopted legislation in May to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. The Nevada legislature passed a bill allowing voters to decide in November 2022 on a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour.

Defending health access

Against the real possibility Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion will be repealed by the GOP-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Virginia expanded access to abortion. They join California, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., in strengthening reproductive rights. Louisville, Ky., adopted an ordinance creating safety zones around two abortion clinics, and New York City and Austin will provide city funding to clinics.

Besides Florida, labor and social justice movements are navigating around GOP legislative intransigence in some states. Oklahoma voters passed a statewide referendum expanding Medicaid. The state has one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation, but within days of opening SoonerCare—Oklahoma’s Medicaid expansion—50,000 residents signed up.

“I’m just so grateful that folks who need care are going to get it. This has been such a long, hard-fought battle,” said Amber England, campaign manager for the Yes on 802 policy reform measure. “It’s well past time that these folks have access to care.”

Last August, Missouri voters also approved a referendum expanding Medicaid to 275,000 residents, only to see the GOP state legislature block the will of voters by refusing to fund it even though the federal government will pay 90% of the bill. The matter is now before the circuit court.

Lauren Schneiderman / Hartford Courant via AP

Medicaid expansion could play a pivotal role in the 2022 elections. Twelve states dominated by GOP legislatures have so far blocked expansion. However, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are critical battleground states in 2022 that could determine governorships and control of the U.S. Senate.

Thirty-two states and D.C. have now legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession. “Three states have already legalized cannabis in 2021 via the legislative process—New York, Virginia, and New Mexico—while Alabama legalized medical cannabis this year,” according to NORMAL, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “As many as three other states could still legalize cannabis for adults this year—Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.” Another 12 states are debating legislation to decriminalize the use of marijuana, but most GOP-dominated legislatures adjourned without action.

The mass democratic alliance is engaged in many battles to defend and expand democracy and economic and social rights against the assault of a neo-fascist-dominated GOP. Winning in the states will be crucial in determining the outcome.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.