Flippable: Bringing Democratic Power Back to State Government

Trump may not have built a wall, passed a health care bill or enacted a Muslim ban for more than a few days, but as America’s attention is fixated on Washington, D.C., Republican legislatures and governors are quietly implementing his agenda at the state level. As of the 2016 election, Republicans hold 33 governorships and control 32 state legislatures. 

The depth of Republican control allows states to easily draft (and often pass) laws to criminalize protest, restrict abortion access (Planned Parenthood has already closed four clinics in Iowa), remove sanctuary city or county status (as Texas did with SB4), reduce or cap the minimum wage, and allow LGBTQ discrimination.

To counter this surge of legislation, groups like Flippable and Our States have organized to try to pry Americans' eyes away from Russia scandals toward what’s happening in our own backyards.

“Trump has dominated the national conversation,” Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and founder of Our States, told AlterNet in a phone interview. “There's been a lot of activism focused on Trump and Congress around the repeal of Obamacare and Russian collusion and all these other issues. What we noticed was that there has not been a similar uptick in activism at the state level where so many of these issues are actually being decided.”

Our States, as Sinyangwe describes it, is “an online platform that tracks legislation across a number of issue areas to help people identify what's happening in their state.” The group aims to “make it easier for people to follow their representatives, contact their representatives and push them to support or oppose particular bills. We're also organizing people in every state digitally through our Slack channels to build their own capacity to be effective advocates.”

Visitors to the site can pick an issue and click on a state to see what kinds of laws are being proposed, find a guide to lobbying state-level representatives in order to fight these bills, and if they’re looking for like-minded residents, take a quick survey that will connect them with a local action group.

While Republican-controlled states are proposing bills on a host of issues, Sinyangwe sees immigration and criminal justice as particularly pressing. Trump wanted to cut federal funding from sanctuary cities, but as Sinyangwe explained, federal funding for these programs “only comprises a very small percentage of those cities' budgets, about 1 percent.”

He continued, “What states are doing and what we've seen this year is four states sign into law bills that outlaw sanctuary cities... at one point there were something like 27 states that were considering bills to outlaw sanctuary cities, four of those ended up being signed into law. This is really the first time… [previously] there were a very small number of states that actually did ban sanctuary cities.”

In terms of criminal justice, states are aiming to criminalize protests, which Sinyangwe refers to as “so-called Blue Lives Matter laws,” which popped up following the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and then extensively after the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock.

“Now that North Dakota has signed into law a bill that criminalizes people who are blocking roadways and increases criminal penalties on protesters in other ways," he says, "13 states this year alone have signed Blue Lives Matter bills into law, many of which are meant to discourage protests and increase penalties on protesters.”

While Our States targets legislation, other groups, including their frequent collaborator Flippable, are focusing on elections and opportunities to turn state legislatures blue. Started by former Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, Flippable focuses on local legislative races and candidates they determine are the most likely to turn blue, and then direct support as needed, whether fundraising, publicity or canvassing, to the chosen campaigns.

As Flippable CEO Catherine Vaughan explained to AlterNet, “There are 7,400 state legislative races, so it's really important to target the ones that actually have the highest chance of flipping, and the highest chance of flipping a chamber.”  

To determine which races to focus on, they built a model and conducted data analysis to identify which districts are the most likely to flip. At a time when Democrats are consistently outspent by Republicans, Flippable staff asked themselves, “Where's the highest return on investment if you're spending your money as a progressive donor or you're spending your time as a volunteer, where should you target your efforts? It's really important that we pool our money and focus on the races where the money will make a difference.”

While the first two Virginia candidates they supported, Cheryl Turpin (Virginia House District 85) and Ryant Washington (Virginia Senate District 22), lost, “their margins of loss were half those of the Democrats who had previously run for their seats,” as Vaughan noted in a Flippable blog post

On the other hand, Flippable was involved in a Delaware State Senate race supporting Stephanie Hansen, who won her special election. She won by 17 percent and helped turn out 1,000 more Democrats than in the previous general election for the same seat.

“Right now,” Vaughan explained, they’re still focused on Virginia, as "that was the first state that we built this model for, so we've identified five priority districts in Virginia as well as 15 potential districts in the state that we're trying to focus people's energy and attention on."

“My co-founders and I have actually worked on an out-of-state volunteer effort in Ohio prior to starting Flippable, so we had seen both some of the great promise of bringing people in from other states and that sort of thing, but also some of the challenges.” 

In the first two Virginia races, the campaigns “didn't anticipate the thousands of people who would be interested in volunteering and phone banking.” That meant technical problems with the phone banking systems, resulting in multiple calls to the same voters and confusion over canvassing. To better take advantage of the new activist energy, Vaughan thinks “there needs to be efficient systems that help route people to where they're most needed... We're working with an organization called Mobilize that is trying to basically build the infrastructure for many different groups like ours to send volunteers and coordinate volunteering and phone banking.”

In addition to refining tactics and strategy, Flippable and Our States aim to train Democrats to embrace state-level politics the way that Republicans have for years. 

“We haven't been a party of states' rights,” Vaughan noted. "We see these sweeping federal victories as the way things should be made. We tend to pursue reform at the federal level.” The reality, she continued, is that “states have enormous power and that they really are the locus of decision making, both in terms of the policies that affect our lives and in terms of electoral policies, or the rules of the game.”

“Potentially we let our ideals get in the way of tactics and the strategy that we had to employ to make sure that we're able to achieve the reforms that we want.”

Going forward, both Sinyangwe and Vaughan spoke about the necessity of coordination between state-focused groups and national groups. The Republicans may have the money and much of the party-specific infrastructure, but both activists believe progressives’ strength is in the grassroots.

“Obviously money can be spent to buy ads and to canvas and that sort of thing,” Vaughan conceded, “but I do think that, at least from my very idealistic perspective, even if we won't be able to match Republicans dollar for dollar, I think that we're investing in longer term civic engagement and awareness that I think will pay off and have huge dividends."

Sinyangwe also sees promise in the demographics of Our States members who are “younger, more diverse, so people of color are overrepresented... It’s important that the coalition of people engaging in this work look like this country and particularly reflect the Democratic Party and where we want to go in the future. I think we are one of the groups that is really pushing the boundaries on that.”


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