What “Let the States Decide” Ignores

There are a number of legal and practical objections to Republicans’ recent, deeply misleading efforts to convince Americans that leaving abortion restrictions to the states is a “moderate” position. The most obvious is that fundamental constitutional liberties are just that–fundamental. Legislators don’t get to vote on whether to allow freedom of speech or religion within their states (a good thing, if you live in places like Indiana, where the GOP super-majority would undoubtedly limit those civil liberties).

Practical objections are numerous: legislative bodies are conspicuously devoid of medical expertise, and ideological lawmakers have demonstrated that they have no understanding of the real-world complexities of the decisions involved; laws that require women to travel long distances for critical medical care discriminate against low-income patients…Most of you reading this post can supply a number of others.

But it wasn’t until I read a recent opinion essay in the New York Times that I had a small epiphany: leaving the issue to the states–despite the pious rhetoric emphasizing voting– is also profoundly anti-democratic, and not just in states like Indiana where citizens lack access to initiatives and/or referenda. Successful gerrymandering–partisan redistricting–ensures that “the people” lack the means to make such decisions.

As Jamelle Bouie writes:

Nearly everywhere Republicans hold power, they fight to rewire the institutions of government in the hope that they will then generate the desired result: more and greater Republican power.

And so we have the North Carolina Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican majorities, the Ohio Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, the Florida Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, and the Florida Supreme Court overhauled to secure and uphold Republican priorities.

The states’ rights case for determining abortion access — let the people decide — falters on the fact that in many states, the people cannot shape their legislature to their liking. Packed and split into districts designed to preserve Republican control, voters cannot actually dislodge anti-abortion Republican lawmakers. A pro-choice majority may exist, but only as a shadow: present but without substance in government.

Polling on the issue of abortion proves his point. Even in deep Red states, pro-choice voters outnumber forced birth supporters by considerable margins, as we’ve seen in states like Kansas and Kentucky where voters have the means to mount constitutional referendums.

In states that lack those mechanisms, as Bouie notes, Republican legislators or jurists unwilling to concede to majority opinion (or constitutional precedent) can respond with the dead hand of the past.

Both the federal courts and the Arizona Supreme Court have conjured a past that smothers the right to bodily autonomy. Anti-abortion activists are also trying to conjure a past, in the form of the long-dormant Comstock Act, that gives government the power to regulate the sexual lives of its citizens. As Moira Donegan notes in a column for The Guardian, “Comstock has come to stand in, in the right-wing imagination, for a virtuous, hierarchically ordered past that can be restored in a sexually repressive and tyrannically misogynistic future.”

This effort may well fail, but the drive to leash the country to an imagined vision of a reactionary past should be seen as a silent confession of weakness. The same is true, for that matter, of the authoritarian dreams of the former president and his allies and acolytes….

Put a bit differently, a confident political movement does not fight to dominate; it works to persuade. It does not curate a favorable electorate or frantically burrow itself into our counter-majoritarian institutions; it competes for power on an even playing field, assured of its appeal and certain of its ability to win. It does not hide its agenda or shield its plans from public view; it believes in itself and its ideas.

That last paragraph is a succinct description of where we are as a nation right now. In far too many states, very much including my own state of Indiana, the GOP has “curated a favorable electorate.” Republicans have also benefitted mightily from counter-majoritarian institutions that have bestowed extra electoral clout on rural voters and low-density populations.

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my periodic rants about the pernicious and anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering, but I didn’t understand until I read this essay that the practice is also an essential tool for depriving American citizens of their bodily autonomy and other civil liberties.

Gerrymandering is a critical part of the effort to return America to the past of GOP wet dreams…..


  1. OMG! The Puritans have gerrymandered their way back into our lives 404 years later, in 2024! Who knew. I had always thought that these current GOP Luddites wanted to to revert back to the stultifying ’50s, but no, it goes way back before those enlightening years. What are these folks so afraid of? Losing control I suppose. Like democracy itself, losing control of women’s rights, along with much of the activities of everyone, is messy. You can’t possibly oversee everything; folks have to be left to make their own choices, within the laws of the land, not the control by a minority with antiquated puritanical ideas of living. No one ever said it would be easy, and it isn’t. Never will be.

  2. Another rule of law in effect in Arizona in 1864 was that 10 year old girls are old enough to marry. I wonder if they will be introducing that bill any time soon.

  3. James mentions marriage at 10 in Arizona. I note NO ONE ever mentions that the age of consent in that same law is 10. So, a child molester can just say the child consented in Arizona and not be prosecuted. I fear this scenario much more than a marriage at 10.

  4. No one in this game actually means “let the states decide.” They mean “let the states who agree with me have their way, while we try to consolidate enough federal power to force all the other states to do what I want.”

    I’m reminded of the slavery issue, where apologists for slavery claimed they just wanted to “preserve their way of life”, their “peculiar institution” in their state. To be left alone. Until slaves started crossing borders into free states, that is, at which point the slave states insisted that the free states must abandon their principles and laws and arrest and extradite people who, under free-state laws, were free citizens. Similarly, stares with anti-abortion laws are not willing to tolerate people casually crossing borders into adjoining states to evade those laws. Witness the laws that states like Texas and Missouri are willing to pass to try to forbid pregnant women from leaving the state for an abortion.

    Like slavery, abortion/choice is a fundamental question about rights, which means those who have strong beliefs about it will not calmly accept deviation from their belief. Also like slavery, it is not consistent with the free movement of people and commerce (in this case, health care) between states.

  5. The GOP agenda has been focused on control, in general, and clearly bodily control whenever they can get it, for a long time. They have known for quite a while that they, and their perspective, are not popular, which is, obviously, the motivation for all the gerrymandering. Thety have not legitimately won a presidency since Eisenhower, and they know that, as well.
    “Let the states decide” is just one more example of their purposely misleading the all to easily misled.

  6. So…folks, I feel the pain echoed here. But, dare I ask, to do? Leave the USA? Move to only Blue states?

  7. Lester. No. Don’t run away. Oppose. Each of us must find our own way to do that. Some will write, some will march, some will donate, some will advocate with everyone they can, and all who can should vote.

  8. That’s a good question, Lester. If you paid attention to the uni party voting yesterday in Washington, you’d expect the peace-loving Democrats to have killed the $100 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, but the Democrats unanimously voted in favor, blocking the split in the GOP.

    The bill also forces the sale of TikTok or a ban impacting 170 million American users. Johnson, who was initially planning to push through separate packages to allow everyone to vote on individual packages, ‘changed his mind at the last minute ‘, adding a layer of unpredictability to the political landscape.

    Trump changed his mind at the last minute and gave the go-ahead to Speaker Johnson. It’s thoroughly confused MAGA supporters because the Dems bailed out Johnson. They don’t know whether to cheer or vote him out!

    Trump is still making decisions while in the courtroom facing jail time. We are sending Israel more money even though the ICC is considering arrest warrants for Bibi and other officials. If our political parties ignore international laws, how can we expect them to uphold federal and state laws? For God’s sake, Indiana backdated a law to erase a lawsuit against gun manufacturers in Gary, IN.

    Our political bodies or justice system have no level playing field or fairness. How in the world are women supposed to oppose abortion when two men are making the decision, and you can’t trust either one to play fair? The international community is shunning the US for its imbecilic decisions in Washington, forcing the propaganda media to clean it up.

  9. Sharon,

    Not to worry. I have spent 7 years leading CommonGoodGoverning which has directly helped elect folks like Conor Lamb, Elissa Slotkin, Dean Phillips, Carolyn Bourdeaux, Kathy Manning and Elaine Luria. Starting tomorrow, we will be working on ousting Lauren Boebert in the June GOP primary in Colorado. We found a “moderate” fiscally conservative candidate who wants to be a servant leader – we need those desperately.

  10. Apparently the objection to our liberal democratic Constitution is not the right to live freely but the responsibility to let others live just as freely.

    The other objectionable aspect of who we are is a union organized into states, not a state joined to a cabal of other states.

    When I think of where both of these revolutionary lines of thinking end up I want nothing to do with them.

  11. If we don’t find a way to convince that third of non-voting eligibles that they must register and vote, we might just have to swallow a lot of unbelievable notions in the not too distant future!

  12. Peggy,

    That is EXACTLY what my group does – laser focus on young and minority voters, the ones least likely to vote.

  13. ALEC has controlled the legislators in Red states who listen to ALEC not their constituents who are mixed Dems and Republicans. People have ignored the power of this organization. How can anyone know all the damage state legislators are doing

  14. So Lester, I signed up for the Common Good newsletter. I want to see how I can help get out the vote in South Carolina, especially the young people.

  15. Todd, it’s amazing how Democrats rallied around Johnson. Even more amazing as to how Democrats enthusiastically supported something facilitated by the orange one.

    Perhaps one of these days the American public will be awarded billions.

    Just another reason for me to vote third party instead of the kayfabe and performative shitshow provided by the UniParty.

  16. We are the biggest target of all of the tyrants of the world because we model liberal democracy and are economically successful. That makes it harder for tyrants to promise that they can offer a healthy economy in return for personal power.

    We need to hold other countries like us very close.

    Sometimes though tyranny strikes our would be allies. Israel in Gaza comes to mind. Those are tough waters to navigate.

  17. I don’t agree with everything that the Democrats propose, and I admire the goals of Andrew Yang’s FORWARD party, but it will take three consecutive Blue Wave election cycles to clean out the sewers. Only then can we begin voting selectively depending on the particular candidates’ own qualifications and inclinations, rather than just voting a straight party ballot. I’m hoping by then that rank-order voting will have become the norm rather than the exception.

  18. Ian, Any third party vote will only help tfg. I recall an acquaintance saying, back in ’16, “Anybody but Hillary!” I doubt she was happy with that later.

  19. Kathy M,

    We are not Common Good. We are CommonGoodGoverning. Send me a note via Linked In or Facebook and I would be glad to tell you more about us and/or send you our newsletter. We do not have a website.

  20. Lester — I am not a member of Linkedin but I did try to look up “common good governing” and couldn’t find anything. Maybe you could send me a link.

  21. I’m in IL… I know if my daughter got preggers, I’d insist she come home until the baby is born. Just for fear of problems (having been hospitalized … it’s easy for me to see all the problems that can happen).

    Also, the LWV in my area is heavily into getting locals to register and vote. This week we are stuffing ‘birthday envelopes’ to hand out to all high school kids that are turning 18 this year.
    Lester, what ways do you work on registering & GOTV?

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