Among a (tiny) fatalistic fringe of the far left, the idea that meaningful change can be made through electoral politics is a stale joke — after all, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Meanwhile, a much larger number of mainstream progressives accept the vital importance of casting ballots, but devote virtually all of their energy and attention to federal elections. They know where Democrats stand in the 2018 generic ballot — and have assessed the relative merits of every would-be 2020 front-runner — but couldn’t tell you the name of their state senator or representative.
These are perfectly understandable ways of engaging in politics (or at least, the latter one is). But they’re also misguided — because progressives can make real political change, really quickly, by getting involved in state and local elections. Recent events in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Washington state have put a shiny spotlight on this reality.
Larry Krasner is a former public defender and civil-rights attorney, whose clients included activists affiliated with Occupy and Black Lives Matter. And since January 2, he’s been the district attorney of America’s fifth-largest city. In less than two months on the job, Krasner has ended cash bail for most nonviolent offenses in Philly (thereby drastically reducing the number of criminal suspects the city jails simply for being too poor to post bail); ceased prosecuting individuals caught possessing small amounts of marijuana, and dropped dozens of outstanding marijuana-possession charges; announced that, as a means of combating the drug-overdose epidemic, his office would not prosecute heroin addicts who use safe injection sites; launched a review of his office’s past cases to identify instances of wrongful conviction or unfair sentencing, and explore means of rectifying such mistakes; and filed a lawsuit against several of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies for deceiving Philadelphians about the true dangers of opioid medications.
In short, progressives have already radically reformed the criminal-justice system of a major American city. And all it took was 58,140 left-leaning Philadelphians turning out for last year’s Democratic primary for district attorney, and voting their values.
Meanwhile, 2,400 miles away, legislators in Olympia have spent 2018 passing progressive reforms like they’re going out of style. Last fall, Democrat Manka Dhingra won a special election to a historically Republican State Senate seat by a little over 5,000 votes. Her narrow victory gave Democrats full control of the Evergreen State’s government. And they’re making good use of it.
Since January 1, Washington’s State Senate has passed both automatic and same-day voter registration, measures that have been proven to expand voter participation and increase the diversity of the electorate; a ban on gay-conversion therapy; the abolition of the death penalty; new anti-harassment protections for transgender students in the state’s public schools; and stronger disclosure rules for campaign donors. These initiatives are expected to soon make their way to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, and then into law.
Back on the East Coast, newly elected New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed his first two laws Wednesday. With the help of a unified Democratic State Legislature, Murphy restored $7.45 million in funding for family-planning clinics that had been cut by Chris Christie, and reformed the state’s Medicaid program to cover family-planning services. In his first weeks on the job, Murphy has also taken steps to liberalize the state’s medical-marijuana laws — and vowed to fully legalize recreational cannabis by the end of his term.
In sum: Your vote matters, especially in state and local elections — and leftists can win and exercise significant political power by running on the Democratic ballot line, especially in races for prosecutors’ offices (because our system invests immense discretionary power in district attorneys).
Elections aren’t everything. The far left is right to insist that workers, tenants, and communities can expand the boundaries of political possibility by organizing and exercising their collective power outside of the ballot box. Nonetheless, through good, old-fashioned electoral politics, progressives can make this country a significantly better place — and in 2018, they already have.