The Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives, presenting President Donald Trump with the frustrations and roadblocks of divided government. In the coming days and weeks there will be abstract appeals to bipartisanship from pundits and columnists who will wonder if Trump will reach across the aisle to work on “infrastructure,” a buzzword that means public investment to liberals and privatization to conservatives.
Trump himself will likely continue to promote extreme right-wing goals rather than risk disengagement by his supporters. This could take the form of a new flurry of executive orders to get around Democratic opposition in the House. He will likely escalate his rhetoric against political opponents and marginalized communities, searching for new and emphatic superlatives to define some new, largest-ever threat. When the House Ways and Means Committee subpoenas Trump’s tax returns, as an anonymous Democratic source promised to do within minutes of the party winning the lower chamber, he’ll surely fight it in court.
The Democrats picked up at least 26 House seats, but the difference in vote totals between the parties tells the real story. Democrats won the House popular vote by about 7 percent, about the same as in the midterm wave elections in 1994 and 2010. But in 1994, Republicans picked up 54 House seats and 63 seats in 2010, which strongly suggests gerrymandered districts continue to protect Republicans through undemocratic means. (Democrats gained 31 seats in 2006, when they won about 8 percent of the popular vote.)
However, this election also saw several key lowercase-d democratic victories, and they point the way toward Democratic Party success and a more representative government. A court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania created a much fairer map, which was favorable to Democrats, who ended up picking up three seats on their way to the House victory. Madeleine Dean won in Pennsylvania’s redrawn Fourth District, which includes most of Montgomery County, the third-most populous county in the state, which had previously been broken across five voting districts. “Finally Montgomery County has a seat at the table,” Dean said at her victory speech, according to The Inquirer.
Pennsylvania is a microcosm of much of the anti-majoritarian policies the country is facing. If the State Supreme Court hadn’t stepped in, it’s likely Republicans would have had a net gain on Tuesday night, rather than a loss. The New York Times’s Nate Cohn argued that without court-mandated de-gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida since 2014, the House would have been an honest toss-up. Democrats picked up three seats in Virginia and two seats in Florida. They stayed even in North Carolina, which was allowed to use its unconstitutional map after a court determined there was “insufficient time” to redraw it.
Perhaps the largest voting rights story of the election, and one that could have a dramatic impact on 2020 and beyond, was out of Florida, where constituents overwhelmingly supported restoring the franchise to people previously convicted of felonies. Constitutional Amendment Four passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote, granting most people with felony convictions the chance to vote after completing their prison sentence and probation, though it doesn’t cover people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. The Sentencing Project found that in 2016, over 6 million people were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, including about 1.5 million in Florida alone.
Black Floridians have been disproportionately affected by the state’s disenfranchisement laws, which, along with Kentucky and Iowa, prohibited voting for life and were the most severe in the nation. According to the Sentencing Project, 21 percent of African Americans in Florida were disenfranchised. Nationwide, one in 13 Black Americans is barred from voting due to prior felony convictions.
Florida elections are famously narrow, 2018 included. Ron DeSantis edged out Andrew Gillum by about one percentage point, or roughly 75,000 votes. DeSantis ran a racist campaign against Gillum, who is Black, warning voters not to “monkey this up.” Outside groups organized robocalls on behalf of DeSantis referring to Gillum as a “monkey” and a “negro.” Gillum’s narrow loss then must be seen in the context of coming up against some of the most racist voter suppression laws in the country. Had the 1.5 million people who have now been re-enfranchised been able to cast a ballot in 2018, it’s very possible Gillum would’ve won decisively.
The run-up to the midterms saw Republican vote suppression in several states. A North Dakota law that targeted Native American voters by requiring a street address to register rather than a PO Box likely contributed to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s loss. Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp faced nationwide scrutiny for his corrupt practices overseeing an election where he was on the ballot for governor, prompting former President Jimmy Carter to call for Kemp to resign his oversight position. Kemp, who appears to have won his race, “cancelled over 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012,” according to the Associated Press. “Nearly 670,000 registrations were cancelled in 2017 alone.” The AP also found that Kemp had blocked 53,000 voter applications in the run up to the election, 70 percent of whom were Black. Greg Palast reported for Truthout that Kemp purged 340,124 voters who the state claimed had moved, but in reality hadn’t.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the modern face of the voter suppression movement, lost his bid for governor. A federal judge this year threw out a 2013 voter ID law Kobach had championed.
Beyond the nakedly partisan voter suppression efforts, voters across the country faced long lines and broken machines, including in Democratic strongholds like New York. There were also irregularities, technological failures, and long wait times in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arizona, Florida and beyond. These problems often disproportionately affect communities of color and poor areas, and need to be understood as violations of citizens’ constitutional rights.
The big picture here is clear, and has been since at least 2016 when Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college – just like George W. Bush did in the 2000 election. The Republican Party is both unable and unwilling to govern as a majority party. As demographic and generational trends look to increasingly favor liberal politicians, the GOP’s only course of action to remain in power is through exploiting anti-democratic measures present in the US Constitution. The United States was built on minority rule of wealthy landowners, and the conservative movement is determined to keep it that way.
The Democratic response must be a bold set of proposals to guarantee the right to vote to as many eligible people as possible. That means proposing policies like automatic voter registration or same-day registration to boost turnout, lowering the voting age to 16, working to re-enfranchise incarcerated people and people convicted of felonies nationwide, declaring elections national holidays (including primaries, which could and should take place on a single day). There is absolutely no excuse not to pursue these lowercase-d democratic measures, and millions of reasons to work to make them a reality.