State Legislatures Matter In the Fight for Justice—Now More Than Ever

We cannot rely on the courts alone to protect our reproductive freedoms. Our first and best line of defense are state houses.

Texas state Rep. Nicole Collier (D) and colleagues on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Thursday, July 8, to speak on the importance of protecting the right to vote. (Roxy Szal)

At this moment, abortion and voting rights are under attack in state houses across the country—and these attacks are connected.

In a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last week, Texas anti-democracy legislators are trying to pass bills making it harder for some Texans to vote—prompting 51 of 67 Texas Democrats on Monday to flee the state and head to D.C. in an attempt to halt Republican restrictive voting bills and pressure the U.S. Senate to take up legislation to protect voting rights. And just two months ago, Abbott signed a radical abortion ban into law, effectively deputizing ordinary citizens to sue people involved in the abortion process, bringing our country to the grim milestone of enacting 1,300 abortion restrictions since the passage of Roe v. Wade.

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs, a case that takes on Roe v. Wade directly. For those who have been watching state houses for the past decade and seeing the constant barrage of anti-abortion legislation passed by GOP-controlled legislatures that chip away at abortion access, this moment came as no surprise.

Since former Majority Leader Mitch McConnell changed the Senate rules—not once, but twice—in the last four years in order to pack the courts with conservative judges, the writing on the wall has become even more clear: We cannot rely on the courts alone to protect our reproductive freedoms. Our first and best line of defense are state houses.

This attempt to strip away our basic rights is all part of a clear conservative playbook that involves passing unconstitutional laws in order to get before the increasingly conservative Supreme Court, as well as passing voter suppression laws that keep communities from electing state legislators who will fight for progressive policies—most notably reproductive freedom policies. We’ve seen the attacks that occur when conservatives have a significant stronghold.

This year alone, 47 states introduced nearly 561 anti-abortion state legislative attacks, with 165 being outright abortion bans. Even without overturning Roe, communities around the country struggle to access the abortion care they need. Decades of policies rooted in systemic racism have left people struggling financially, with young people, LGBTQ+ people, Black, Indigenous and people of color bearing the brunt of these restrictive policies.

Despite this, we have seen the awesome power of states to protect and further enshrine reproductive freedom policies, thanks to state legislators who are fighting better and differently for policies that increase freedom.

Voting and Repro Rights Go Hand in Hand

A central goal of conservative jurisprudence is the narrowing, if not total evisceration, of federal protections. This often means that conservative courts kick the proverbial can back to states to decide key issues.

As the Supreme Court has been manipulated into a super-conservative bench, key decisions have curtailed federal power and given states more leeway, particularly when it comes to voting and reproductive rights. One key example is Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act and gave states more authority to restrict access to the ballot.

Republican-controlled states have wasted no time in passing voting restrictions, and this has accelerated drastically since the 2020 election after a high turnout out of Black and Brown voters.

This trend in jurisprudence dovetails nicely with a cornerstone of the conservative playbook, which is to pass unconstitutional legislation in states that have been gerrymandered into conservative control so that the legislation will be challenged and end up before the Supreme Court. As the court has taken a sharp rightward turn, this strategy may bear even more fruit.

Suppressing voting rights and reproductive rights are part of a coordinated, intrinsically linked strategy: When conservatives chip away at voting rights, they make it harder for people to vote for legislators who would protect and expand reproductive freedoms. We need look no further than Mississippi, whose Black communities in particular have endured a long history of voter suppression and abortion restrictions, leaving only one abortion clinic to serve the entire state.

We know that an overwhelming percentage of Americans are in favor of keeping abortion legal in most cases—even in states that have passed abortion bans. The stark disconnect between what the people want and what our elected officials are doing is harming people every day.

After the 2020 election, conservative state legislators ramped up their efforts to make it harder for communities of color to vote. In the 2021 state legislative session alone, 389 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states. The bills institute new barriers to voting and target people of color by reducing hours of polling locations, cutting back on early voting options, requiring new, unnecessary identification requirements and curtailing or eliminating absentee voting.

States Have Power to Protect and Expand Access

All of this means that state legislatures are more important than ever, and are an increasingly powerful venue to protect and expand voting and reproductive rights.

Progressive organizations focused on state legislatures and state legislator support have greatly expanded their capacity and strategic focus in the past decade. Organizations including Sister District and State Innovation Exchange (SiX) have been working overtime to build progressive power in state legislatures. For Sister District, this includes working to elect state legislators, as well as to support them once elected. For SiX, it means equipping state legislators to build and wield community governing power by, with and for the people they represent.

The power of state legislators to enact and champion policies that expand and enshrine reproductive freedom can be seen this year in New Mexico as legislators repealed the state’s pre-Roe abortion ban. In Virginia, legislators repealed the ban on abortion coverage through their state exchange plans. And in Massachusetts, legislators paved the way to eradicate racial inequities in maternal health.

These state successes can light the way for us as we continue to build toward reproductive freedom.

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About and

Gaby Goldstein is the co-founder of Sister District, which works to build progressive power in state legislatures. Follow her on Twitter @gaby__goldstein.
Jennifer Driver is the senior director of Reproductive Rights for State Innovation Exchange (SiX).