Republicans weaponize statehouse rules to disenfranchise voters

From preemption laws to the expulsion of Democratic representatives, Republicans in red states are rigging the game

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published May 9, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Oregon State Capitol Building (Getty Images/Doug Wilson)
Oregon State Capitol Building (Getty Images/Doug Wilson)

First, it was the Tennessee Three. Then, a trans lawmaker was kicked out of Montana's House chamber. After that, Oregon's GOP senators held a quorum hostage in their Capitol to prevent Democrats from holding a vote. Now, the North Carolina legislature's GOP supermajority has introduced and passed a 12-week abortion ban in under 24 hours. 

With the Supreme Court kicking abortion access back to the states, a deadlocked Congress held hostage by extremist rookies, and President Joe Biden pussyfooting around executive orders -- 2023 seems to be the year that America's state legislatures, the Wild West of political skullduggery, are finally stepping into the national spotlight and its long-overdue scrutiny. The dam was broken in 2010 when the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United opened the floodgates to unprecedented campaign spending by dark money groups. In 2010, Republicans held 3,246 state legislative seats to Democrats 4,031. After the 2010 elections, Democrats were down to 3,301 and Republican numbers grew to 3,946. 

Republicans seized full trifectas in 11 states where Democrats either held a full or split government — and the GOP was quick to consolidate that power. Sweeping redistricting reforms and gerrymandered maps became the GOP's central tool in maintaining local control. And while partisan entrenchment trends in the past two years have seen some blue states become more deeply blue, the GOP's iron grip on statehouses has grown stronger since.

With the exception of Alaska's coalition-controlled chamber, Republicans currently control 29 House or Assembly chambers, and 29 Senate chambers. Democrats, on the other hand, control only 20 House or Assembly chambers, and 20 Senates. Following the 2022 midterms, Republicans now serve as the attorney general offices of 26 states. And in 28 states, Republicans have either full trifectas or hold total legislative control.  

Much like the controversial rules packages that come at the start of a new session of Congress, a state chamber's earliest votes in a session are to approve its annual rulebooks. And like those of Congress, a state chamber's rules can be suspended on a motion approved by the speaker or chamber leader -- for nearly any reason, at nearly any time. 

The expulsion of state lawmakers may seem unprecedented and extreme but it shouldn't be a surprise. State legislatures -- often historically set in a far remove from cities -- have long grown rancid with a malicious culture of unchecked sexual harassment and bullying. And the few token gains made by the #MeToo backlash have in many places been eroded entirely. 

And the contempt of the powerful for those in the chamber spreads from the personal to the legislative. Bills are assigned to strategically unfit committees. (As in Kentucky, where abortion bills are routinely assigned to the Veterans Affairs Committee.) Committee hearings for bills are often scheduled, rescheduled, or re-located at the last moment, undermining public participation. Other times, bills are gutted wholesale, hastily stuffed with unrelated substitute language on the floor before being passed out of the sausage factory. 

"You are far more likely to end up in front of a judge than you are to end up in front of the governor."

And more often than not, all of it happens in the dark; news outlets have cut state Capitol reporters 34% since 2014.

Voter suppression and electioneering tactics play a key role in keeping things quiet in statehouses. Strict voter ID laws, efforts to undermine early voting and mail-in ballots, rigging and purging voter rolls — in 2021 alone, 19 states controlled by Republicans passed 34 laws to clamp down on democratic participation. In 2022, a renewed wave of Republican bills — all of which failed — would have taken election oversight away from nonpartisan election agencies and local officials in seven states, and given partisan officers the authority to overturn election results.

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As the GOP has elsewhere, Kentucky Republicans have long leaned into the slogans of small government and local control. In the regionally diverse state, rural and urban problems often require locally tailored solutions not reached by blanket mandates passed at a state or federal level. The slogans could be heard in the Capitol from both Republicans and Democrats in decades prior, staving off laws that would have overwhelmed county-level resources. In communities where too few badges patrol long stretches of high-speed backroads, for instance, the state that gave the world bourbon still has dry counties. 

But the meaning behind those rallying cries has changed. These days the slogans are shouted in opposition to federally protected education or healthcare rights.

"When you have lawmakers who are standing up and arguing, yet again, why they should be put in the place of a medical doctor or a medical provider, and be the middleman between a parent and how they want to raise their child -- that seems to be the opposite of the party of small government to my eyes," Angela Cooper of the American Civil Liberties Union told Salon. 

The local control conflict is felt most sharply the latest tactic of GOP-controlled statehouses, preemption laws -- designed to undercut the authority of municipal governments and city mayors, almost always Democrats. Preemption played a prominent role in states' COVID-19 containment efforts.

"As I was talking to the folks at the National League of Cities, which is a broader national group that represents a lot of states and local governments, they said that they are seeing more than 600 of these bills active in legislatures in the country right now," NPR's Kelsey Snell recently reported. "They said that it used to be that these things would play out over all 50 states, but they're seeing it in a narrower group of states this year, particularly when it comes to culture wars issues. They said a lot of bills around rent control, housing, public safety -- like policing, LGBTQ rights and education -- those things are happening mostly in Republican legislators." 

For all their messiness and upsets, the 2022 midterms moved Democrats ahead not only in Congress but in statehouses — where they regained control of five chambers from the GOP and picked up 21 seats. The sweep wasn't a Blue Wave by any means, but in states where Democrats gained statehouse seats during 2022, those gains were slightly larger in most cases than seats gained by Republicans. 

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia -- it shouldn't be surprising that these states' Democrats picked up enough seats to regain control of a statehouse chamber. Meanwhile, though, the statehouse seats gained by Republicans more closely illustrate the point. West Virginia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida -- Republicans already had control of at least one chamber and they increased their share of seats in them heavily. Red chambers, in many states, got much more red. 

But the midterms did hint at the promise of more statehouse-level gains in 2023. And as the Supreme Court keeps kicking civil rights cases back to the states to decide, it's simultaneously shining a harsher spotlight on the state lawmakers who are the source of attacks on those rights. 

To those like Cooper and the ACLU, that means the courts play a greater role than ever. Cooper suggests the ACLU's non-partisan judicial election guides as an important step toward directing public attention to the power of the bench. 

"You are far more likely to end up in front of a judge than you are to end up in front of the governor." 

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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Abortion Aclu Analysis Democrats Gop Kentucky Preemption Laws Republicans State Politics