David Pepper on US Statehouses as Laboratories of Autocracy.
And some excellent ideas for encouraging voter registration
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with David Pepper, who is a lawyer, political activist, former elected official, and adjunct professor. He served as the Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party between 2015 and 2021. In that role, he engaged in extensive litigation over voter suppression and election laws in the Buckeye State. Pepper is the author of the 2021 book, Laboratories of Autocracy, and of four novels that bridge real-world politics and fiction—including A Simple Choice (Putnam, forthcoming June 2022). Our conversation took place on November 9, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): In your book Laboratories of Autocracy you argue that we don't pay enough attention to statehouses, even though they are agents of the decline of democracy in America.
David Pepper (DP): You and other folks tell us about risks all over the world to democracy. I tell the story from an in-state perspective: we have the same risks here, but we just don't see them in the same way. And I think it's a huge blind spot. If we looked at another country and we saw the combination of steps that are taking place in our states, what would we say? Here we have attacks on independent courts, rigged legislative elections, laws that make protests by the opposition harder, laws that create immunity for people who run over protestors with their car or attack independent election officials.
All of this adds up to a dramatic turn away from democracy towards autocracy. Some states don't meet almost any definition of a functional democracy at this point, and in places like Texas and Ohio, statehouses have a huge amount of power over national elections. These states resemble what we call "competitive autocracies": they look and feel legitimate, even though the results of their elections are essentially predetermined and rigged.
RBG: When we study democratic erosion we talk about processes of “autocratic capture,” where the judiciary, the election machinery, and the media are taken over by loyalists, and it starts at the town and city level. Is something similar going on at the state level in the US, even if we don't use that term?
DP: I mean, it's clearly going in that direction. Once you tear away at the protections and pillars of a democratic system, things can convert very quickly, and you start getting truly unhinged legislatures. Statewide elections in some states are still relatively competitive, although voter suppression and purging have taken a toll.
Yet in the statehouses there is a system that Vladimir Putin would be impressed with. For example, in Ohio, even if a majority of people voted for a Democrat, the Republicans would still be in the majority or super majority in the statehouse. When outcomes are guaranteed, there is zero accountability. I wrote the book to wake people up so that we take this as seriously as we would if it happened in other countries.
RBG: How do you speak to people about this? It's very dispiriting to people to hear that in Wisconsin and other places, the popular vote doesn't matter. So how do you motivate people?
DP: My hope is that people can start to see a reason to get involved, because democracy is in the balance. If you never cared about your statehouse before, it is time to start caring. We need the energy in the 2022 midterms that we normally bring to a presidential election, or we risk losing it all. We have to focus on all the races. The Koch brothers have viewed things this way for 30 years. They don't take an election year off.
RBG: What are the most important things we can do? I know that the decline of local media is part of the problem, because the national media focuses on the big races. You talk about revitalizing local media to draw more enthusiasm for local races. But there is much more to do.
DP: The first thing is that people need to understand the problem. And my biggest fear is the minute that people hear "statehouse," they fall asleep. They need to know that the Koch brothers are all over these statehouses, but that the average person doesn't know who their state representative is. That's the perfect situation for the Kochs and their allies to do what they're doing.
So, understand your own statehouse, know who your representative is. If that representative has championed democracy, help them. These are normally pretty accessible people. If they're good and it's a smaller district, they'll give you advice. Hey, these are the races we are focused on. Here's how you can help.
And if you happen to live in an area where your state representative is one of these people who attacks democracy every day, do not let that person go through the next election without a challenge, whether it's yourself or your most impressive friend. You can help to make sure that we are challenging all these people.
Another thing: those who care about democracy have to spend time registering voters. The GOP is purging voters every day who have not moved and who have not passed away. They did this in Ohio and it really changed the balance of power.
They did not like the coalition of voters that elected Obama and turned Ohio blue in 2008, and they spent a decade tearing apart that coalition. The most brutal tool they used in Ohio was really aggressive purging of voters. They targeted people who hadn't moved or passed away but voted infrequently. They took them off the rolls.
So, you have to register voters to compensate for this. If you run a nonprofit, let's say a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen, you should register everyone you serve. If you're a mayor of a city, you can make it part of your mission to register residents. You turn every recreation center, health clinic, and library into places where people can be registered to vote. Why do we only use the Bureau of Motor Vehicles as a registration lever? That's so random. We've got to expand on that.
If you're a company that believes in democracy, show it, not just by dropping out of something bad, but by doing something good. Think about how to get your employees registered. When Sherrod Brown was Ohio Secretary of State, he got McDonald's to put a voter registration form on every Happy Meal tray.
We know that there are many people right now working to undermine democracy --that’s the heart of what they do. We need to make the support of democracy the heart of what we do - incorporating it into our personal mission mindset.