Here’s a perspective on the midterm elections that hasn’t been talked about much: Trump country voted “yes” on election reform. The vast majority of counties that Trump won convincingly in 2016 joined the reform wave that swept much of the country on election day, enacting the largest number of pro-voter ballot initiatives in a half century. Trump counties helped pass felon voting reform in Florida; election registration reform in Michigan and Maryland; and independent redistricting in Missouri, Michigan, and Colorado. These developments counter the narrative that the Trump movement has a fundamentally anti-democratic trait, and indicate great potential for further progress. They also suggest some opportunities, and considerable pitfalls, as Democrats develop HR1, the election reform bill slotted as their first move in the House.
The table below lists the state-level reform ballot questions of 2018 and how those initiatives fared in the counties Trump won by 25 percentage points or more in 2016. Reform measures won in 66% of the nearly 500 such “Trump Counties;” the aggregate vote count in these counties was 57% in favor of election reform.
|How Election Reform Ballot Initiatives Fared in “Trump Counties”|
|State||Reform||Winner||“Yes“ vote in counties Trump won by 25 pts or more in 2016|
|Florida||Voting rights for felons||Yes||56%|
|Maine||Ranked choice voting (passed in June)||Yes||42%|
|Maryland||Election day registration||Yes||50%|
|Massachusetts||Citizens commission for anti-Citizens United Amendment||Yes||NA (Trump won no counties in Mass.)|
|Michigan||Automatic voter registration, “no excuse” absentee voting, election day registration||Yes||58%|
|Missouri||Redistricting, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform||Yes||57%|
|Nevada||Automatic voter registration||Yes||42%|
|N.Dakota||Right to know sources of political spending,; ethics and lobbying reforms||Yes||48%|
|Ohio||Independent redistricting (passed in May)||Yes||69%|
|S. Dakota||Campaign finance reform; accountability board||No||44%|
|Utah||Independent redistricting||Too close to call||NA|
Some caveats need mentioning. Anti-voter ballot questions did win in two states – Arkansas and North Carolina both passed voter ID requirements, and there are limits to the conclusions that can be drawn from this various data. But at a minimum the data provide an important indicator of bi-partisan support for election reform in a substantial cross-section of the country.
Two themes of these campaigns help explain their success in Trump country. First, several share an anti-incumbent component. Independent redistricting reform is largely driven by voter anger at self-dealing state legislators who use the redistricting process to protect themselves in safe districts. Accordingly, redistricting reforms generally fared better in Trump counties than reforms focused on issues such as voter registration. Second, most of these initiatives arose locally and maintained nonpartisan reputations despite opposition efforts to frame the reform in partisan terms.
This brings up “HR1,” the democracy reform bill Democrats are proposing for first legislation in the House. The bill is expected to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, for tighter ethics requirements for the presidency, and for states to implement independent redistricting and automatic voter registration. From an election reform perspective, these are all desirable policies, and it’s possible to imagine such a bill (probably without the presidential ethics component) proceeding in a manner that amplifies into Congress the bi-partisanship the states demonstrated last Tuesday. The much more likely scenario is that HR1 ends up positioning these reforms as wedge issues, politicizing them and undermining their broad-based support.
The election reform this country needs can’t be achieved through votes that break on strictly partisan lines. Few expected the historic number of reforms passed this election cycle, and the unprecedented degree of bi-partisanship behind them. Let’s hope that rare and invaluable dynamic can continue.