Focus on State Legislatures, Not Just Congress

Dark blue background with dome of state capitol toned in blue but the dome is made up of mostly blue dots and some red dots to indicate state legislative seats.

Although the New York State Legislature just concluded our session, we are never off the clock when it comes to fighting for our rights. Amidst Republican rollbacks and inaction at the federal level, it’s becoming clearer that states can no longer count on a gridlocked Congress or an activist Supreme Court to serve in our best interests. As chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), I understand the unique responsibility that state lawmakers have in this fight. We are entering a new chapter in American democracy where state officials must be prepared to step into a stronger leadership role for the nation, and serve as the last line of defense against these regressive trends on our freedoms. 

New York is a time-tested cradle for democracy. As the battleground for numerous civil rights advancements, our state has always led the nation in progressive breakthroughs. When it came to passing women’s suffrage, legalizing abortion and making critical achievements in the Civil Rights Movement, New York proved that it will take action when others lag.  

We made these advancements not only for the sake of New Yorkers, but for those all across the nation. Our American creed tells us to lift as we climb, so that others don’t endure the same needless hardship. It’s the federal government’s responsibility to make these strides on our behalf. But when that fails, states are obligated to rise in its place. 

Today, we are seeing those shortcomings on full display. At all levels of government, vicious attacks seek to unravel our civil liberties, starting first and foremost with the right to vote. Republicans have looked to gut the Voting Rights Act, weaponize the Supreme Court in shielding racial discrimination, obstruct voter protections in Congress and eviscerate electoral integrity at the grassroots level.

We know that the fight is in our own backyards. State legislatures are the soil from which our polity grows, and must be secured against corrosive ideals.

While many citizens and watchdogs alike zeroed in on Congress, state legislatures became the real hotbeds of political activism. With roughly half of state governments controlled by Republicans, far-right lawmakers planted the seeds of hate at the local level and hoped they’d grow throughout the country. 2021 stood as the most regressive year yet in Republicans’ fight, introducing over 400 bills nationwide to curtail voting freedoms. 

These anti-democratic trends, designed to keep those in power who cannot win on merit, harken back to much darker days. Enemies of choice know that the ballot is our key to true freedom, and the spring from which all other liberties flow. If we allow our sacred right to vote to fall, nothing will stop further demagoguery. Every other freedom that we hold dear will be up for grabs. 

In the year 2022, I often think about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1957 “Give us the Ballot Speech,” imploring leaders to expand the franchise to Black American voices.  

In pleas that still ring true today, he said, “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men [and now women] of goodwill.”

How ironic, that 65 years later, we are still demanding the right to choose representatives who will uphold our best interests, with the freedom to remove them if they run astray. The will of the people, which forms the heart of this democracy, is at an all-time risk of shattering. 

We know that the fight is in our own backyards. State legislatures are the soil from which our polity grows, and must be secured against corrosive ideals. Our recent passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York (NYVRA), the strengthening of our reproductive health protections, and our life-saving gun legislation prove that New York is ready to lead this nation in pro-democracy efforts.   

We will continue to serve as a safe harbor for those seeking refuge, and will open our arms once again to fellow Americans in need. With our legislative templates, I urge other state lawmakers to take up similar measures and forge a true network of “destination states” across the country, where people can find safety and know that their rights are secure.

As legislators in New York State and across the nation break for the summer, please remember that our work to protect our democracy is not finished. Remember that our constituents’ interests are in line with the rest of this nation, and our freedoms are no more guaranteed here than anywhere else if we don’t continue our fight. 

Former U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) once said, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take.” 

At this critical hour, I vow to lead as chair of the DLCC and leader of the New York Senate in the actions necessary to keep our rights safe, and our institutions strong. We will bolster our foundations, support our federal partners in their advocacy and continuously build our democratic coalitions from the ground up. In doing so, New York, and state governments that follow suit, will proudly light the path ahead for our country.

Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins serves as majority leader of the New York State Senate and as chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.