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How Republican states are eroding local democracy

Republican leaders in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas are targeting Democratic communities and institutions.

Bill Lee, pictured mid-speech with raised eyebrows, has grey hair and wears a grey suit jacket.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers a speech in the House Chamber on February 6, 2023, in Nashville.
Rogelio V. Solis for AP
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi — all led by Republican governors and legislatures — are pursuing efforts to diminish local control over policing, elections, and the courts in liberal and racially diverse areas.

All of the proposed legislation targets issues that are especially sensitive for marginalized areas, like elections and criminal justice. In Mississippi and Texas in particular, the legislation is targeted specifically at localities where people of color are the majority. Efforts in all three states indicate an alarming trend, in which Republican leadership is attempting new strategies to further erode democracy, particularly in majority-minority areas and Democratic strongholds.

Some of these efforts, like the state government’s push to control policing and the court system in Jackson, Mississippi’s majority-Black and underserved capital, have been in the works for months. Tennessee will eliminate community boards that oversee local police forces as of July 1.

In Texas, a bill that has already passed the state Senate would remove Harris County’s elections administrator and hand those duties over to the tax assessor-collector and the county clerk, the Texas Tribune reported earlier this month. Another would allow the secretary of state to call a new election in the case that ballots aren’t available, according to the Washington Post. Yet another bill would allow the secretary of state to appoint a marshal to investigate voting complaints.

“I think it would make a mockery of our democracy,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, told the Post. “It would be a throwback to the forties and fifties.”

Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-TX) said the initial bill, written by Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, included all counties with populations larger than 1 million, but that a study by Bettencourt’s office found that Harris County was the only such municipality that repeatedly had election issues, according to the Tribune.

Harris County did not create an elections department and appoint an elections administrator to run its elections till 2020, and voting officials did experience technical problems in that year’s election. The Secretary of State’s office released a report in December 2022 that found all these issues, except the long wait times, were minor. “Texas voters should have a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of Texas elections,” the report said, continuing, “When procedures are followed, results of the election are trustworthy. Indeed, in most cases, the audit found that the counties followed their procedures and clearly documented their activities.” Issues reported during the 2022 election were deemed to be inconclusive after an investigation by Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum.

But Bettencourt’s legislation seems to be motivated by election fraud conspiracies rather than providing the funding, resources, and training that would help Harris County elections run efficiently and without significant problems.

In all of these cases, rather than invest in public services necessary for the functioning of communities and local democracy, Republican leadership’s apparent answer is to underfund institutions or, as the past several months have shown, eliminate or curtail local control.

Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee: Three makes a trend

Mississippi’s Republican governor and Republican-dominated state legislature have been attempting to expand the presence of Jackson’s Capitol Police force, as well as establish an alternative to the Hinds County Circuit Court, where elected judges would be replaced with state-appointed ones — at least for part of the city.

Jackson is a majority-Black city with a progressive, Black mayor. Chokwe Antar Lumumba came into office in 2017 with 93 percent of the vote. Lumumba referred to himself as a “revolutionary,” much like his father, Jackson’s former mayor Chokwe Lumumba Sr. The younger Lumumba had a vision for Jackson, whose Black population has long suffered from the architecture of white supremacy in the South; after decades of racist vigilante violence, Jim Crow legislation, and backlash against the civil rights movement, Lumumba hoped to build a prosperous Jackson that would strive “not only to correct the ills as we see them, but to be a model for the nation of what progressive leadership and collective genius can accomplish,” as he told the Guardian in a post-election interview.

The state of Mississippi has been working against that vision in recent months by introducing a slate of bills that wrest control of Jackson’s water system, police force, court system, and sales tax allocations from the locally elected government to the Republican, white leadership in the state, all of which seems to benefit Jackson’s white population far more than its Black residents, who make up about 80 percent of the population.

Jackson certainly has problems — the water system is so degraded that residents cannot drink tap water or brush their teeth with it unless it’s boiled first. Garbage collection is another recent critical issue, as are high rates of crime and poverty.

Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican from northwest Mississippi who sponsored the bill to take over Jackson’s police force and court system, denied that the legislation was racially motivated during an interview with the New York Times; his measure, he said, was instead focused on helping the city solve its problems with crime and court backlogs.

But it’s hard to ignore the message that, “This is a thing of, ‘Black folks can’t govern. Black leaders can’t govern,’” as Danyelle Holmes, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, told NPR in March.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill on Thursday which will eliminate civilian oversight boards for local police forces. They don’t exist in every city in Tennessee, but there is a Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) in Memphis, the city where Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by police officers in January. In Memphis, the CLERB “has the power to receive, investigate, hear cases, make findings, and recommend action on complaints regarding excessive and deadly force,” according to the Memphis city government website.

“Any community that’s dealing with a significant incident of police abuse — obviously the situation with Tyre Nichols was a particularly egregious and high-profile situation — but I think probably one of the most common problems that we hear of is that there’s not enough transparency, there’s not enough community access to what the city’s doing about the problem,” Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, told Vox. Community and civilian oversight boards like the kinds Tennessee will eliminate help communities access information about their police force and provide a mechanism for accountability when the police force is accused of wrongdoing.

Tennessee’s new legislation will replace the community oversight boards with police advisory and review committees on July 1. These committees will have no power to investigate police forces, and only members appointed by the mayor will be allowed to bring complaints to the police force’s internal affairs unit. There will be no mechanism for independent investigations of police misconduct, as the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Republicans have come up with more creative ways to try to eliminate Democratic control

Republican efforts to limit Democratic power and representation are nothing new. Gerrymandering, for example, has been a scourge on the electoral system, with Republicans and Democrats both redrawing maps to try to rig electoral districts in their favor.

State legislatures, too, have worked to limit the influence of Democrats in power, most notably in the case of North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. As Vox reported in April:

House Bill 17, which [former Gov. Pat] McCrory signed into law in December 2016, hamstrung Cooper’s ability to appoint staff, required cabinet appointments to be approved by the legislature, and limited Cooper’s control over the education system. Senate Bill 4 turned the state’s Supreme Court elections into a partisan process, requiring candidates to disclose their party affiliation on a ballot. The bill also changed requirements for appeals, routing all cases through the Republican-controlled appeals court, and limited Cooper’s control over the state and county boards of elections; McCrory, a Republican, signed both bills into law.

The legislative efforts in states like Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi are specific and subtle, and are ostensibly proposed to correct real problems. But they also fit into a larger framework of Republicans attempting to seize and solidify control in whatever way they can in states where they hold legislative and executive power.

Correction, May 22, 1:50 pm: An earlier version of this story misstated the details of election issues Harris County experienced in 2020.