August 18th, 2019

The Super State Strategy


John Minchillo/AP Photo

Voters fill out their ballots on the first day of early voting in Cincinnati, 2018.

The Open Mind explores the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, and the arts. The American Prospect is re-publishing this conversation.

These are two leading organizers in the movement to rebuild and preserve American democracy: Ethan Todras-Whitehill is the cofounder and executive director of Swing Left, and Catherine Vaughan is the chief strategy officer of Swing Left. She was previously the CEO and cofounder of Flippable, an organization to support candidates running for state office. This year Swing Left recently launched a Super State Strategy for 2020 designed to organize victories across the White House, the U.S. Senate and state in 11 so-called Super States so that volunteers and donors can multiply their impact up and down the ballot.

Alexander Heffner: What are you hoping to accomplish by January 2021?

Ethan Todras-Whitehill: I think obviously we’d like to see a new occupant of the White House. I think everyone would agree that’s the most important thing facing our country right now. But that’s not enough. You know what I mean? The last cycle the Senate was really hard because the Democrats were playing defense in so many deep red states, but now there’s a real path to taking back the Senate. And that’s critical. And then, there’s this little thing called redistricting that happens once every 10 years. One of the big reasons we wanted to join forces with Flippable is because we understood just how important redistricting is, is going to be and how important the elections of 2020 are going to be for how we fare on that front.

Heffner: Hare you going to try to accomplish taking back state houses?

Catherine Vaughan: So the Super States are examples of states where you have multiple really important elections or geographies up and down the ballot. So a state that’s going to be critical to winning the Electoral College and also has a critical Senate race and also has a state house or states senate that can be flipped in time for redistricting in 2021. Identifying not just the states that are important, but the specific geographies, those smaller districts, those zip codes, those areas that we know an individual vote, if someone’s voting Democrat up and down, the ballot could have five or six times the impact as just an individual vote somewhere else.

Heffner: Some folks are arguing that it’s disadvantageous for the Democrats to nationalize Trump and impeachment.

Vaughan: It really varies. Right now we’re talking to some candidates in Virginia, and it varies even within a state. In some districts talk of Trump and impeachment is taking up some of these town halls, and in other districts, people are really focused on infrastructure, on the environment, on the economy. I do think that we stand for a whole set of democratic values. We know that voters want accountability, we know that voters want an honest and decent person in the White House.

Heffner: Tell me about one of the Super States.

Todras-Whitehill: North Carolina always kind of springs to mind as a good example because there you have a state that has everything going on, right? It’s a critical presidential swing state. It’s also got an important Senate race, right? Thom Tillis is very vulnerable. And then you might think that Democrats have a voice in the redistricting process in North Carolina because Roy Cooper’s the governor. But it just so happens that the way the North Carolina laws are written, the governor does not have a veto over the map. So Republicans currently have total control of the map writing process. North Carolina is a horribly gerrymandered state and the way it is right now, it’s going to continue to be that way, right, so what are we doing about it? Well, we’re organizing local teams in North Carolina. Right now a lot of them are working to try to win the North Carolina 9, special election, the redo of that election that was basically like stolen last cycle.

Heffner? How?

Todras-Whitehill: Registering voters is actually an incredibly powerful thing to do. Because of all the barriers to voter registration, people who register to vote are reasonably likely to vote during a presidential year, a stat you don’t hear about a lot is about 85 percent of registered voters typically vote in presidential elections. So folks are out there in North Carolina registering new voters, but we’re also having people register voters in North Carolina from across the country via handwritten letters, because we recognize how important it is. And if you register voters in the right districts in North Carolina that one voter could cast a vote for state Senate and State House to overturn North Carolina’s gerrymander.

Vaughan: So many of these issues are hyper-local on the way that people experience them, but then end up actually being really consistent across the country. So we saw that a lot with health care in states that hadn’t expanded Medicaid. In Virginia in 2017 before Democrats had this huge blue wave and were able to influence the expansion of Medicaid in that state that was the one issue on everyone’s mind. And that was consistent across Republican run states that hadn’t done that. You have issues of public education that we see in a state like Arizona and in a state like Michigan. I do think it was striking to me to see how consistent some of those issues are. I think when it comes to the specific dynamics on the ground around registering voters and getting them out to vote, you’re also going to have different tactics. But largely, you know, Republicans have tried to exclude likely Democratic voters from registering to vote, and from the democratic process. So you see lower registration rates in a state like Arizona among voters of color, particularly Latinix voters. We need to register more people and we need to get them out to vote.

Heffner: In some cases, you face laws that are poised to disenfranchise populations that might vote.

Vaughan: Yes.

Heffner: Younger voters.

Vaughan: There are a bunch of residency requirements that New Hampshire has instituted for voting, particularly aimed at those college students who move to New Hampshire from another state and are there for four years but often for longer. It essentially makes them have to get a driver’s license or a form of ID in state. And that can often be very costly, especially to some college students who may not have a reason otherwise to get a driver’s license in that state. They may not own a car. And so you know you have those examples of an effective poll tax on students. And, and then you have similar examples. Look at what’s happening in Florida right now after a ballot initiative was passed to restore the right to vote to people who had previously had a felony sentence. They are now essentially trying to impose a pulp poll tax making sure that every formerly incarcerated person has to pay off every single fine and fee before being able to register to vote. So you’re seeing similar tactics that Republicans are employing.