Melissa: It was the night before the midterm and all through the land political nerds could not rest wondering which seats can stand. Early voters already cast their ballots with care while they have deciders pledged to do their share. Worried citizens tossed and turned in their beds, while visions of gridlock dance in their heads. More than a few struggle to sleep last night and in the wee hours, they saw a strange light.
A deep red hue shining from on high, a blood-red orb appeared in the sky. Was the scarlet globe assigned Republicans would prevail while Democrats would surely falter and fail? No, no, it wasn't about politics at all, rather a total lunar eclipse caused crimson shadows to fall. When the day broke with contest still at hand, those on all sides cast votes so democracy could stand. Tuesday, November 8th, it's election day Takeaway.
We're starting with some of the concerns that you called to share with us.
Sonny: Hi, this is Sonny in Bonaire, Virginia. The elections are pretty scary actually. Seems like the world has gone pretty crazy misunderstanding what freedom actually is.
Randy: Hi, this is Randy from St. Helens, Oregon. I'm watching all the races. My biggest concern is that this country remains a democracy.
Melissa: Sonny and Randy, we hear you. When you're expressing worries that go far beyond the typical election day questions of, will my candidate win? We hear you saying you're worried about our entire system. Part of why it's so challenging to feel and express such big concerns is that systems are well, big. We know that you've heard about the 435 House seats, the 35 Senate seats, the 36 gubernatorial races at stake today. That's really just the tip of the 2022 election-day iceberg.
Americans will cast their final votes today in more than 6000 state legislative races, deciding which party will control 88 of the country's 99 state legislative chambers in 46 states. It's a lot of numbers. Though they receive less national media attention, it is these state-level outcomes which may prove most consequential for addressing the pressing concerns voiced by Sonny and Randy.
Which is why here at The Takeaway we'll be following not only the partisan balance in the US House and Senate, tonight we're also going to be watching for state trifectas. Now, a trifecta is when one party controls both Houses of the state legislature and the state's governor's office. Now, heading into Tuesday, there are 23 Republican trifectas and 14 democratic ones. Trifecta control hangs in the balance of nearly a dozen states like Arizona, where Local 12 News says--
Local 12: The races for Arizona's top offices are going down to the wire.
Melissa: In Arizona will lose its Republican trifecta if Democrat Katie Hobbs can beat Republican Kari Lake in the state's gubernatorial she election. Republicans could pick up a trifecta in a tight race in the Sunflower State.
Reporter: The Kansas governor's race could come down to the wire. The most recent poll shows a statistical dead heat with incumbent Democrat, Laura Kelly up two points over Republican Derek Schmidt. There are a lot of undecided voters in play.
Melissa: Now, Democrats are favored to win gubernatorial races in both Maryland and Massachusetts, which will add two new trifectas to the Democratic column. Democrats could lose their Nevada trifecta in the still-too-close-to-call governor's race in that state.
Reporter: Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak is up against Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.
Melissa: The big question isn't how many trifectas will emerge from tonight's election results, the big question is so what? What difference does it make if a single party wears the three-pointed crown of state legislative and executive power? To help me answer that is Archon Fung, director of the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. Professor Fung, thanks for being here.
Professor Fung: Thanks for having me on the show, Melissa.
Melissa: All right, what are you watching in this midterm? We'll get to trifectas in a moment. What are you watching on this midterm Tuesday? What are the big takeaways you're seeking?
Professor Fung: [laughs] Your initial callers were very worried and so am I, I'll be looking for some worrying signs. One big worrying sign I'll be looking for is whether there is an uptick in political violence and intimidation of either voters or election officials or politicians. We saw the awful thing that happened to Paul Pelosi. After 2020, I've talked to many election administrators, people at the county level and town level who say that they've suffered a lot of threats and intimidation to themselves and their families. My heart goes out to everyone who's working the polls and trying to assure that the rest of us get a chance to vote and stay safe.
Melissa: That is so true. Typically I think of election day as a little bit like a political nerds Christmas morning. We've been waiting and waiting and now it's so exciting. Some of that enthusiasm is tamped down a bit when you have to worry about concerns of very real public safety.
Professor Fung: Yes, absolutely. A second thing I'll be watching for is widely reported as there's about 300 candidates in the Republican Party who are running who either deny the results of the 2020 election or have questioned it, and I will be looking at whether the losers of those races continue to deny their election results. I think if they don't, that's a very positive sign because maybe that means the real counts will enjoy respect from everyone even if they lose. If the deniers deny, I think that that's going to be a very worrying sign that may be stop the steal wasn't just for that election, but will continue. That would be very distressing.
Melissa: I so appreciate that the big takeaways for you today are structural rather than any particular race or particular person because those are the enduring elements that create the question again, of whether or not our experiment in self-governance is actually working or failing as an experiment. Help us to put state trifectas within that line of evidence. When we look at an increasing number of trifectas in states, now with a majority of states governed basically by one party, what difference does that make to the big structures of American democracy?
Professor Fung: In my business in political science, people used to worry a lot about divided government at the national level and the state level. Divided government is the absence of a trifecta, when one party controls for instance, Congress and another controls the executive branch. The worry with divided government is that government doesn't get to do the things that voters sent politicians to office to do, because you get gridlock and the actual literal vetoes or veto points, and you can't get anything done. Now, I think a lot of people are worried that with unitary government with the trifectas that you mentioned that parties will be able to get too much done in not a good way.
I think both sides are problems, if there's a big majority that votes for a Democratic legislature and governor in the state or Republican legislature and governor in a state, then they get to pass policy that people wanted and that's how democracy works and that's a good thing. That would be on the positive side of either Democratic Party or Republican Party trifectas. On the negative side though, I think there's two things to worry about. One is that the winner, which may be wins by 55% of the vote, which is a huge amount, will just ignore the other 45% of the electorate and what they want and run roughshod over them so you get too much majority rule, which would be a bad thing.
On some policy issues that you'd want to see more deliberation, more compromise, more negotiation, and a trifecta reduces the need for the dominant party to do that. That's one worry. A second structural worry that's much more important in my mind is that a Democratic Party or Republican Party trifecta will use its legislative and political power to change the rules of the political game to make sure that they stay in power and make it much harder for challengers and opponents to win the next time around. That is a threat to democracy rather than only policy.
Melissa: Perhaps part of why we see these increasing trifectas isn't because we come together and all agree that this is the one direction we want to go in a state for example, but precisely because of the mapping. That means there's some very real difficulty in translating public opinion, what voters want into the actual seats in those state Houses.
Professor Fung: Absolutely. I think probably a lot of your listeners are rightly concerned with gerrymandering, which is a huge problem. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party engage in gerrymandering and have for a very long time. Many more Republicans states compared to Democratic states are heavily gerrymandered, and it's a really bad thing. People concerned with gerrymandering should look at studies of what was called the REDMAP project, which was an effort in 2010 by Republican Party officials to run a lot of downstate races and invest a lot of money in state legislature races in 2010, with the hope.
The plan was that, "Well, if we can get trifectas in state legislatures in 2010, we know there is a census, there's going to be a lot of re-districting in 2011, and we'll be able to rig the maps in our favor for a decade to come." That worked in several important states. It was a good plan in the sense of good strategy. I think it's terrible for democracy, small D democracy, but it results in a lot of gerrymandered states, and that's a terrible thing.
Also, your listeners should know that American democracy is really unusual compared to Europe or a lot of other democracies that have been around for a long time in the extent that American politicians really play with the rules of the game to gain political advantage. Whether it's mapping or messing around with how long polling places are open to where you can drop off ballots. Other countries, this is unusual. This is unusual in not a good way.
Melissa: Why is that?
Professor Fung: There are far better political historians than me. I think that there's something to that story. I think more recently, race is a huge part of the story. Since the Civil War to the 1960s, today, a big part of which party gets elected has to do with how many Black people get to vote. Then messing around with the rules of the game at the constitutional level, at the gerrymandering level through the Voting Rights Act to expand the franchise, to make it finally possible for Black people in the South to vote.
It's just, for a very, very long time, since the founding been a part of our political competition is, who wins, wins by altering in part, who gets to vote, which is a terrible thing for democracy. Everyone should get to vote. Whatever our political beliefs, we should fight for and strive for a system in which everyone gets to express their political preferences and participate.
Melissa: It's my favorite lesson of political sciences in undergrad was, I was taught, democracy, when it's working well, works best for the losers because it's safe to lose an election because you know that you won't lose your rights. I always have held on to that, that democracy is really for the losers. If it's not safe to be a loser, it's probably not a very healthy democracy. Archon Fung is Director of the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. Archon, thank you so much for joining us today.
Professor Fung: Thank you very much for having me. Everybody, get out there and vote if you haven't already.
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