Despite Rising Diversity of U.S. Electorate, State Legislatures Still Look the Same

The Democratic Party is using data and old-fashioned field work to bring more minority voters to the midterm polls.

Michael Sargeant is Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an arm of the Democratic Party charged with winning state legislative majorities for Democrats. (National Journal)

In the past decade, Americans have watched dramatic demographic shifts turn longtime Republican strongholds like North Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado into presidential swing states, while pushing traditional swing states like Oregon, Illinois, and New Mexico firmly into the Democratic column.

At the same time, thanks to voter outrage over congressional gerrymandering and GOP state legislators' efforts to blockade life-or-death policy questions like the Medicaid expansion, state elections have become more important, hard fought and heavily funded. But unlike in presidential campaigns, the increased attention that candidates and parties have paid to emerging and fast-growing groups of voters hasn't dramatically transformed state-level election results.

That's because demographically speaking, the voters who have turned out and participated in recent midterm election cycles largely resemble America's past. Older, whiter, Republican-leaning voters are more likely to vote every year, while young people and minorities tend to "drop off" — meaning fail to vote — in mid-term contests. As a result, in 2010, the nationwide ratio of white and nonwhite voters who decided that year's state and national elections looked no different than it did in 2004. In other words, after turning out in historic highs and electing the country's first black president in 2008, the interest and participation of minority and young voters dipped so low in 2010 that it was as if nearly a decade's growth in African-American, Latino, and Asian communities had never happened.

The problem is compounded by heavy Republican gerrymandering in many legislatures. In Wisconsin, a state where the population was 86 percent white in the most recent census, Republican state lawmakers deliberately drew legislative districts that minimized minority voters' already limited influence in legislative elections. As a result,the party that holds the majority in the Wisconsin Senate will likely be decided this fall in competitions for just four open swing seats where the nonwhite population averages only 9 percent of the population. If those voters also fail to turn out, their voice will be muted even further.

The interplay of these two things — turnout disparities and racial gerrymandering — have left many state legislatures in the hands of elected officials whose politics are not representative of new and fast-growing segments of the American population.

The outcome of state legislative elections this fall will hinge on whether Democrats can solve this midterm turnout dilemma and overcome racial gerrymandering in the most competitive districts. And if President Obama's two campaigns have taught us anything, it's that harnessing the power of America's changing electorate to win legislative majorities won't depend on millions of dollars' worth of TV ads or swarms of mailers. It'll depend on what happened in an American University conference room just a few days ago.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee's Grassroots Victory Program just held an intensive training for 150 grassroots organizers, who will now be deployed to run field campaign efforts in some of the closest legislative battleground districts in the country. This new group of organizers will double the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee's field efforts when compared to those of just two years ago. In 2012, Democrats gained nearly 200 new legislative seats and won new majorities in eight legislative chambers from coast to coast.

The DLCC is making this historic investment in grassroots organizing because, quite simply, it works. And it matters. Consider that just in 2012, a full 483 legislative seats were decided by 500 votes or fewer. Even if a candidate's strong field campaign shifts the outcome by only a couple of percentage points or several hundred votes, the numbers suggest that Democrats can achieve major state legislative gains just by working to get more voters to midterm polls.

Consider also the scale of a typical state legislative election. Unlike candidates for Congress or statewide offices, many state legislative contestants face small enough electorates that they can personally meet every potential swing voter, face-to-face, by Election Day. That kind of direct, person-to-person contact with voters multiplies the impact that an efficient, well-targeted field campaign can have at the legislative level. It brings more marginally interested voters to the polls and sometimes boosts voter-participation rates.

When that happens, that's often good news for Democrats.

But the number of additional organizers we're fielding isn't nearly as ground-breaking as the way these resources will be deployed. We're centralizing legislative field efforts like never before, dramatically increasing standards all over the country and strengthening field culture across the board. In states where Democrats are only beginning to build their grassroots infrastructure, voters will experience more contact with volunteers for their local Democratic legislative campaigns or with the candidates themselves. In states where Democrats have long been able to deploy a strong core of volunteer activists, the average voter may not notice much difference. But behind the scenes, Grassroots Victory Program organizers will take advantage of years of Democratic progress in statistical analysis and experimentally tested field tactics to make sure every door a volunteer knocks on is a door that's most likely to provide an additional Democratic vote.

In swing states like Iowa and Nevada, where Democrats hold legislative majorities by just a single seat, this new organizing advantage may prove decisive in activating growing Latino and other minority communities, bringing them into the Democratic fold and the voting booth. But the Grassroots Victory Program's impact extends well beyond America's traditional swing states. The Grassroots Victory Program is also building field infrastructure in red states such as Kansas and Utah and emerging battlegrounds such as Georgia and Indiana.

Georgia, in fact, perfectly illustrates how Grassroots Victory Program organizers and Democratic legislative candidates can localize outreach to rapidly growing minority communities who've been marginalized by Republican leadership in these states. Nearly two-thirds of the Peach State's population growth in the past decade has come from African-Americans and Latinos. By 2016, Georgia is projected to add nearly 400,000 more eligible Latino, African-American, and Asian voters than it had in the last election. If our party reaches out at the individual level now and encourages more of these voters to participate in this year's midterm legislative races, Georgia Democrats can expand the Democratic voice in their Legislature and hasten the day when their state becomes a true presidential battleground.

We've passed the point of speculating about how demographic change may reshape America and begun to witness it. Layering a marriage of smart data and traditional organizing principles on top of that shift could produce a sea-change in state legislative politics this fall.

Michael Sargeant is executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an arm of the Democratic Party charged with winning state legislative majorities for Democrats.

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