Down Ballot Races are Important, Too

Ideas and Issues

June 10, 2021

New Orleans

I read a fascinating article recently in The New Yorker that highlighted the emerging network of progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Sunrise that are pushing some pieces of the Democratic Party to the left. As is usual in the magazine, they focused on the personalities, their interconnections, and the he-say-she-say of political gossip and intrigue.  The basic question in “The Left Turn” was whether we are moving towards an ideological realignment.

Not only is that a fascinating question, but given the state of the current political environment, wouldn’t almost any kind of realignment be wonderful. Moving away from the right and more towards the left would in fact be divine.

The evidence brought forward is largely based on a half-dozen members elected to Congress and the ever-bright star of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in that body and virtually everywhere else. The success of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaigns is also critical in this argument, as well as the increasing political currency of the Green New Deal, regardless of its chances of passage in Congress. This is heady stuff, and the strategy they have employed of going after moderate-to-liberal electeds in relatively safe Democratic districts has scared the pants off of many of the finger-in-the-wind types, and it’s where they have been able to count coup successfully.  I’m fine with all of that and good on them!

At the same time for all of their work going after big dogs, I wish they would hunker down on some of the critical down ballot races that make such a huge difference, especially if there is to be any hopes of a deep realignment.  I would nominate looking hard and long at upcoming races for Secretaries of State across the country.

Voter suppression and the who and how of the elections are critical issues right now that stand in the way of our having any semblance of democratic participation. Congress is stonewalling. The courts are little help. The Trumpsters have targeted these races heavily and for good reason, in fact, the same reason that I’m arguing that progressives need to step up here:  they maintain and control the voter list and often much about how, when, and who votes. The hyper-controversial Georgia Secretary of State has already drawn opposition. How about Texas, Arizona, Florida, and so forth? There are many that should face contests. This is a job that is too important to simply be a step up for someone in a state’s political ladder. Working with the Voter Lab and the Voter Purge Project, where we are now processing twenty-seven state voter lists and about 160 million records, we know how critical these jobs are, and how much can go wrong and be lost when they are done wrong.

Given the voter suppression drives, and even the voter registration drives, like the one-million new voter effort now beginning in Texas, these kinds of folks, and all of the rest of us, need to think about recruiting candidates. These are cheaper races, but they are statewide platforms.  Many of these down-ballot races were progressive touchstones in the past. Minnesota had a dynamic secretary of state dedicated to reform in past decades.  Colorado had a state treasurer of the same cloth. Decades ago, I remember a friend and colleague who created an entire PAC just working on these races. It’s time to dust off this part of the strategy and foreground it once again, if we’re going to really try to make change and hold onto it at the grassroots level.