Daniel Nichanian on the Nuts and Bolts of Local Elections

Anyone who paid attention to the ugly aftermath of the 2020 presidential election suddenly realized that a coterie of state-level bureaucrats had a whole lot more power than we ever imagined. And it was a huge wake up call for those who have chosen not to vote in past local elections. Elections matter, even small ones. This week on Sea Change Radio, we welcome political scientist and election expert Daniel Nichanian to discuss the importance of local elections in this country and how his new media venture, Bolts Magazine, intends to shine a brighter light on small, but increasingly vital races in all fifty states. We talk about the upcoming midterms, uncover arcane election laws in certain states and examine what’s on the ballot locally in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:20 Daniel Nichanian (DN) – There are actually four states this year,Alex, where the partisan court balance could tip over in these elections, and those states are Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and in North Carolina. So in each of these states in particular, the elections in in November. Are going to have great importance on who runs state courts but also potentially on abortion access.

00:46 Narrator – Anyone who paid attention to the ugly aftermath of the 2020 presidential election suddenly realized that a coterie of state-level bureaucrats had a whole lot more power than we ever imagined. And it was a huge wake up call for those who have chosen not to vote in past local elections. Elections matter, even small ones. This week on Sea Change Radio, we welcome political scientist and election expert Daniel Nichanian to discuss the importance of local elections in this country and how his new media venture, Bolts Magazine, intends to shine a brighter light on small, but increasingly vital races in all fifty states. We talk about the upcoming midterms, uncover arcane election laws in certain states and examine what’s on the ballot locally in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.00:01:49AW

01:52 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Daniel Nichanian. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bolts Magazine. Daniel, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:00 Daniel Nichanian (DN) It’s great to join you. Thanks for having me.

02:02 AW – Well, it’s a treat for me. I’ve been following you on Twitter at @Taniel for so many years now and have found your Twitter feed to be a real important resource for election analysis. And you really get into the weeds more than your average analyst on Twitter, so this newest venture of yours, Bolts, why don’t you tell us first a little bit about the mission of this?

02:32 DN – Yeah, thank you so much for having me in and I think you already started to capture why Bolts exists. Why, when saying I get in the weeds on Twitter, for many years, I’m sure many people who are who are going to hear this interview have been interested in change. And really, who has the authority and an ability to enact change in in the US, right, and our attention usually goes, often goes to the federal government to Washington DC to Congress, obviously is very important, and the President obviously is very important but on many of the issues that really interest a lot of people, the power and greed, enact change and make a big difference is often at the state level and the county level and the municipal level. And that’s where things get a little iffy in terms of people really following or the information infrastructure following and pinpointing not just the right people who are making the decisions, but also really the type of authority they have and the ability they have to change what their community is doing right. And for four years I was  especially focused on criminal justice issues. And that’s really a topic and an umbrella of issues where the county level and state level are so, so crucially important, I would argue more than most, because the jail system, the prison system the court system is really county by county, state by state and officials like your sheriff. Your prosecutors have a lot of range in terms of what they can do and how they can implement laws and with what the degree of harshness of severity and so on. And so it was very important for me to really pay attention to these things and with Bolts, which is a new outlet that that we launched just a few months ago at the beginning of this year and I would invite everyone to go to Boltsmag.org. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking at the nuts and bolts of political change and who has the power to enact change on criminal justice. But also as our second key hub, right now voting rights and the officials who run our elections. A lot of people didn’t necessarily fully pay attention to that level of government when it comes to running elections. But Trump’s efforts to overturn the last presidential election and rely on local and state officials to do his work have really brought attention to those offices – the county clerks and so on. And the powers they have and so at Bolts we try and have a platform for people who are interested in these issues around the country to be able to go and get information, get a better understanding of the state officials and county officials who are making a difference on these issues.

05:17 AW – Yes, it’s a perfect time for this venture to be launched while we watched the January 6 committee hearings unfold, not only because of the highlighting of local election officials, but also if you’re spending a lot of time watching cable television, for example, you’re just getting a very superficial national view. And most people who are politically astute either choose to be focused on national. Or their own local state elections and policies exactly. If you’re in California, you’re not looking at local elections in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania very much, and it takes some real groundwork. And we kind of like roll our eyes and say, oh, those are for the geeks, or that’s. Just inside baseball is an expression, but explain a little bit of your background and what makes you well suited to do this kind of legwork, Daniel?

06:12 DN –  Yeah, I mean that that’s a great way to put it, actually. And I I wish I had started like that because and also that really matches how people think of the media, right? Like we know where to go for national news, we know where to, you know. Everyone has their own place, but you know the big national news places we know where to go. Maybe if the local news infrastructure. Haven’t been totally demolished in the places we live, we don’t go some in some other states, local newspaper and often have to pay the firewall. I mean, maybe I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but that’s just not how people use the news, but that’s a problem because when it comes to the issues we’re discussing or abortion access, which you know I’m, I’m sure we’ll get to as well the reflex to go to the federal election. Well, understandably, it is often not the place where really the most is at stake, you know. Obviously it makes a huge difference who controls the US Congress in 2023-2024? Obviously, but ultimately you know if you if you really care about an issue like abortion or election. The offices that run elections. And you don’t know where to look for the governor’s race or the OR the a race or the county clerk race in the swing state during states that have their bans on abortion and so on. That that’s a problem, and right now that’s the big obstacle and a lot of people are very aware of these issues, and there’s all these problems, right? And they know the questions to ask. They often also know the answers they want. Like they want a governor who won’t enforce who won’t have the fashion ban or they want a county clerk who won’t overturn the election. But that doesn’t mean that from there to be able to jump to, you know there are 3000 counties in the country to be able to jump to that level is very difficult, and this you know. This is the kind of thing I’ve been paying attention to since I was since I was very young for maybe reasons that were more about hobby, right? Like yeah, I mean you know when I was embarrassingly young when I was following a new a lot of local elections by heart, I mean it felt it felt like a fun thing. I think obviously with age and more and more political awareness, what you also understand is we should have states in this and obviously you know I worked as a political journalist, then I then I went into a PhD Program and in political science, but I think that that really brings you a new awareness. Obviously of all the states and the importance of following or following. All this as I was saying specifically, you know for really years I I paid attention to criminal justice. Exactly what I’ve been saying, but specifically on criminal justice. Because there’s been obviously a lot of movement around BLM around prosecutors on really this this level of analysis for years now and I was excited with Bolts and now too. I think we need more of that. We need more of that analysis on other issues. You know, I’ve only mentioned some, but the same thing could be said about housing and climate change where there’s so much to come into view that that is kind of ignored and so much creativity possible. In some offices that that is not used because it’s under the radar, right?

09:13 AW – Yes, and I want to dive into your piece that just came out on the local elections where abortion is on the ballot for local elections this year. But before we get in because you mentioned some of these other issues that are so important like climate change, etc. There’s a very useful database that your colleagues in you have put up the pieces written by Quinn Yergain and it’s entitled the people who count our elections or can grind the process to a halt. So before we can even consider what’s on the ballot and what issues we can vote on. And I think it was Joseph Stalin who said something to the effect of “it’s not who votes but who counts the votes.” This is really an important tool for everyone who cares about their franchise and democracy. Maybe we can go through some of the examples that Quinn outlines? I notice, for example, that Alabama has sheriffs there who are elected who could have been and were part of the “Stop the Steal” campaign to try to negate the 2020 presidential election. They have been tasked with counting the votes in some pretty scary ways. Well, that that stood out to me, but maybe you could walk us through some of the other bullet points from Quinn’s piece?

10:42 DN – Yeah, it’s a great one to start with because in the history of America, there’s always been intersections that are way frightening between law enforcement and the voting infrastructure, and attempts to criminalize voting. And obviously that’s still ongoing. So and and there’s new ways in which that is now developing with the new iterations of Republican efforts to restrict the votes. So in that context, seeing that in a couple of states sheriff have a formal role in in the election process is definitely is definitely quite striking. But I think you know like just taking a step back for a second, before even thinking about who is on the ballot this year or what are they doing? What are they running for is the first question? What are the offices that one should even know about and think about and start like analyzing and reporting on? And I think what’s a bit incomprehensible sometimes to people or into myself, is given how important coming out basic. Some of these questions are, how, how impossible it is to even find you know good information that that makes that possible to do that work without reinventing the wheel every time.

12:00 AW – And they vary so much on a state by state basis, it’s crazy.

12:02 DN Oh, they vary entirely. And even within a state like Georgia is a state where it may be the state that is so so some states are still complicated within this state, ’cause the from county to county, the infrastructure and the institutions that matter for a particular thing can be totally different that creates another level of difficulty. And then it poses challenges if you’re trying to ask questions to candidates. To follow the process because you have the barrier of entry is so high every time, right? So what one thing we’re trying to do with the page you just mentioned is really loud in every state. The offices and institutions that are response. And importantly, when and how they are chosen, because it’s not just a matter of knowing. What they do, but also when that comes into play, at what time can we pay attention to a possible shift in who holds the office? That right now we are seeing a lot of people aligned with the stop. The steel movement with former President Trump or trying to take over many of these offices, right? And so you know if you’re wondering who counts the votes in your state, who counts our elections and you may have heard that there are county clerks running somewhere who are trying to subvert the voting process in the place you live, right? The clerks may not have that authority, but you but you you should make sure that the candidates running for sheriff or for judge for Election Commissioner, you should be asking about their position. So it’s really a matter of county by county, state by state. Attention to these issues and it’s very important for everyone to know about the process in their in in their state I think.

13:54 (Music Break)

14:29 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Daniel Nichanian. He is the editor in chief and founder of Bolts Magazine. People can go to Boltsmag.org to learn more about it. So Daniel, we were talking about who counts the votes in local elections, but now let’s go to another kind of a subset of Quinn’s work on Bolts. Your guide to local elections, where abortion is on the ballot this year. There’s only a few things that people can do when they get mad about this. They can donate to an organization that will advocate for their values, they can march in the streets. They can write angry tweets, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to helping women who are going to be at risk because of this law. Why don’t you walk us through some of your thought process in shaping this database and where the most, the greatest impact that the latest Supreme Court ruling will have and could have depending on how things go this fall in the midterm.

15:39 DN – Yes, I think what got me started thinking about this is in the aftermath of the double decision. A lot of exhortations to vote were being heard right, like voiding as like go, go, vote as a result, and you know there was a lot of frustration, understandably about some of the calls, in part because of the vagueness of them like what does it mean to go vote right now? Why would it change something when Democrats have right now controlled the federal government? Obviously, with limitations that that we know, but the vagueness of it was there was something that wasn’t quite sufficiently precise in how people were talking about avoiding there, and I wanted to kind of spend some time looking at the specific elections at the state level and the local level again that would have the greatest impact on shaping access to abortion and also the enforcement of abortion bans because it’s both a matter of whether a law allows people to have access to abortion, but also in places that do have bands in places that do have criminal charges looming over people’s head. How harshly the system is going to is going to actually be applied based on who actually is in office and what they’re saying about it. So there’s so many different questions, and part of what I wanted to do and I’m happy to go into, you know, jump into some. Parts of this is both identify the key places where this is at play in specific elections, but also kind of frame it as a bunch as a bunch of questions that people should be asking about their own state their own county. So even if you know I am going to highlight three prosecutor elections on this page. There are a lot of prosecutors all around the country and a lot of people who are listening to this might have, you know, might not know what their what their DA thinks about this, but hopefully through this guide they might have an idea of why it is important so you know, for instance, maybe the more obvious and direct issue on this page is whether governors who are going to be elected in November. Are going to be in favor of abortion protections, or of abortion restrictions, and the reason why that matters now very much obviously is that the decision through the power on this issue to the States and governors are going to therefore have are going to be very critical in terms of whether they will. Veto new abortion restrictions or not right? And so the maybe the paradigmatic example. There is the governor’s race in Pennsylvania because Pennsylvania right now has a Republican State House and state Senate and likelier than not that will remain the case after 2022. But they also have a governor’s race and the governor. Race right now. The governor there is a Democrat and is really the only thing that’s standing. Between the Republicans who are running the State House and Senate, and new abortion restrictions and so that’s the result of the governor’s race in November is going to is going to be set what the future of abortion access is in Pennsylvania? And there’s a very clear contrast there between the Republican nominee. Who is anti abortion and the Democratic nominee who has fought for abortion rights in the past already?

18:52 AW – I like it because it’s solution oriented. Let’s go through some of the questions you ask here, it’s fitting that it’s nine questions when we think of the nine Supreme Court justices who shaped this decision, it’s really the 6, but the first one you put in the piece is “will voters affirm or reject state constitutional protections for abortion access?” What does that mean, let’s say in Kansas or in Michigan?

19:19 DN – Yeah, yeah, so there’s a lot of referendums on abortion, right? So you know, it’s sometimes it’s important to explain why this office or that office matters when we’re talking about a referendum. It’s quite obvious the voters in the state are going to weigh directly on questions linked to abortion, and usually the way that. The form that this takes is referendums on whether the state constitution protects abortion rights or not, and you know there’s the federal Constitution, but every state has their own, has a constitution of their own, that that can. Have more rights that can have that can be more affirming of abortion rights than the federal constitution, and so there’s a number of referendums that are extraordinarily important on this issue in the coming months. And the first one actually is not in November, but in August 2nd. It’s in just a couple of weeks in Kansas, which a lot of people might associate with a quite conservative state, but the state Supreme Court, there had ruled a few years ago that the state constitution protects abortion access. So as a result, the Dobbs decision, at the federal level has not had the impact in Kansas that it doesn’t have many other places, because abortion is still protected by the state Supreme Court in the state constitution. Conservatives there are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overrule that ruling and effectively say that the state constitution does not protect abortion access and that election is in August 2nd. So if that were to pass. It would open the door for new. Restrictions a new ban on abortion in Kansas if that was passed. As well, the inverse is true in Michigan, which is a state where progressives have actually put a referendum on the ballot to the inverse. So the state constitution there is no recognized right by any state court to abortion access and Michigan is a huge state. It’s a swing state, but it has a pre-existing ban on the books pre Roe that could potentially come into effect. And ban abortions in Michigan? Obviously a huge deal, and this referendum in November, if it actually qualifies, they’re still. It’s still in the process of being figured out it would. Progressives are trying to make sure voters enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, which would effectively protect Michiganders from the prospective an abortion ban.  So you know, it really doesn’t get more important than those more directly important. Let’s say when it comes to abortion, access on the ballot.

21:51 AW – So then the second question you ask is, will new state’s judges affirm abortion rights or strike down abortion protections? Now this this is more of an art form because we’re trying to…you kind of have to look at how judges in particular states have ruled in the past, correct?

22:09 DN – I think at some point it gets. It all gets very complicated and we’re talking about both understanding why office has matter and what’s happening in specific states. But states supreme courts. I mean, we’ve been talking now about. Under the radar offices, we all know what the US Supreme Court can do. We all know the balance of power in the stakes, but the state supreme courts really should have similar attention. But they really are under-appreciated how much authority they have and how much they can change. And as I was just saying, state supreme courts. Can affirm abortion rights within a state based on the state constitutions in a manner that the US Supreme Court probably will not review or append two and you know there are ways in which constitutional amendments on the via referendums could affect that. But State Supreme Court elections are very important in determining the balance between conservatives and liberals in every state court, and therefore how they might rule on abortion access. When it comes up and there’s actually four states this year. Alex, where the partisan court balance could tip over in these elections.  It could go from democratic, Republican, Republican Democrat, and those states are Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and in North Carolina. So in each of these states in particular. The elections in November are going to have great importance on who runs state courts, but also potentially on abortion. Access of these four they’re not all equal. Depending on other factors about abortion in the state but again, Michigan stands out. I was just talking about Michigan and voters could take matters into their own hand. But if they don’t, or if the ballot doesn’t qualify, the ballot initiative doesn’t qualify. The Michigan State Supreme Court is extraordinarily important. Right now, Democrats have a four three majority on the court and the governor. The Democrat is hoping that the court will step in and strike down the abortion ban that I was mentioning earlier, but that majority on the court could tip over if the election goes very well for Republicans, they could win back. The state Supreme Court. And that would significantly change the equation, obviously of how an abortion case will play out, and you know, there’s all other states. Other states were similar states are at play. You know I’m not going to go through every state now, but it’s very important to look at. I mean like it’s very small things Alex, like in Kentucky. One of the most anti-abortion. Members of the Statehouse is running for a seat on the state Supreme Court. The idea that someone with that level of commitment to the issue on the right might make it to such an important position could obviously have an impact on how cases that will emerge in the future will be decided, so those are very important elections this fall.

25:02 AW – Abortion makes almost every election important in so many ways, and this your piece highlights this. I mean, obviously the governor races are going to be critical and then state legislatures, but I didn’t even consider this. You ask it in the piece. Will cities and counties empower law enforcement to enforce bans or investigate pregnancy outcomes? Now I’m a politically astute observer. I vote in every election. But a lot of times I don’t really know who sheriff A or Sheriff B is, but it makes the more granular races as critical as ever before.

25:39 DN – I mean that’s right. I mean, people don’t usually necessarily patient to to set intention to sheriff elections. And you know this is not an exercise to say that a sheriff is going to be the remedy for abortion access. That obviously be would be a claim that that that would be actually quite. Like to put sheriff’s and law and law enforcement. At that level, protection is already would be a marker of how much has been lost in terms of abortion access. Because once we’re talking about these officers, we’re already talking about a situation where abortion has been criminalized, where pregnancy outcomes beyond. You know, beyond necessarily, like what we. Think of abortion or being in or being investigated by law enforcement where a lot of people lives and ability to remain free or under under threat, and in that context there’s it’s a matter. Of people who live in those states there are questions about harm reduction that emerge, and then we’re talking about the prosecutors. And we’re talking about the sheriffs. Or are they going to investigate or they’re going to arrest people or they’re going to prosecute people? And and for that in places like Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin that I talk about in the article. Those are now positions that prop on prosecutors and sheriffs are are really taking an opposing 11 another on we are seeing. Sheriff’s and sheriff candidates. We’re seeing DA&DA candidates say I will not prosecute any cases linked to abortion or I will not investigate any case linked to abortion. And it’s important to be aware of who is saying what and whether they’re going to stay true to those to those positions, right? So even in places like California, right? Even in places that have. Abortion protections these days. Sheriff’s and law and police in general are empowered to go after people unless other institutions are trying to step in and protect them. So those are really important questions to keep in mind everywhere.

27:45 AW – Yes, and it highlights the value of your work. It it’s never been more timely. I highly recommend our listeners go to Bolts such as Bolts mag.org Daniel Nichanian. Thank you so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:00 DN – It was great to be here. Thank you so much.

28:19 Narrator -You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Martin, Medeski and Wood and Sam Cooke. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability for Sea Change Radio I’m Alex Wise.