Down-Ballot Politics With Daniel Nichanian of Bolts

Election season is still a few months away, but the scent of it is already on the wind. There is a lot at stake in the presidential election, of course, but that’s not the only issue for voters in November. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Daniel Nichanian of Bolts Magazine to get a deeper understanding of the importance of the many down-ballot races on which Americans will be casting votes this fall. We examine state Supreme Court elections in Arizona and North Carolina, and discuss how abortion may affect various swing state races in places like Florida.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Daniel Nichanian (DN) | 00:15 – Trump named the federal justices that overturned Roe. And then the Governor DeSantis signed the law that is now at issue in Florida. So the dots very much connect to Republicans who are already, you know, being put on a defensive on these issues. Whether that actually translates into the presidential race being more competitive, that might be a stretch. We’ll see.

Narrator | 00:39 – Election season is still a few months away, but the scent of it is already on the wind. There is a lot at stake in the presidential election, of course, but that’s not the only issue for voters in November. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Daniel Nichanian of Bolts Magazine to get a deeper understanding of the importance of the many down-ballot races on which Americans will be casting votes this fall. We examine state Supreme Court elections in Arizona and North Carolina, and discuss how abortion may affect various swing state races in places like Florida.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:30 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Daniel Nichanian. He’s the founder and editor of Bolts Magazine. Daniel, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Daniel Nichanian (DN) | 01:41 – It’s great to be back. Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:43 – So, when we first spoke, you were just launching Bolts. Before we dive into all the, the nuts and bolts of this upcoming election, tell us what the mission of the organization is and how it’s been evolving since we last spoke a couple years ago.

Daniel Nichanian (DN) | 01:59 -Um, yeah, so it’s, it’s really great to be back after a few years of having Bolts in the world. Now, Bolts… the idea behind Bolts is that for a lot of the big issues that people are interested in or care about, the federal government, just as a very small slice of what’s important, of what’s happening, it’s very important to be aware of the ways in which counties, municipalities, state are also very, very important when it comes to matters linked to civil rights, voting rights, and, and so on. And, and what Bolts does is on the themes we cover, which are really focused on criminal justice on one hand and, and vote voting rights on the other, um, we, we really pay, pay attention to what’s happening around the country at these levels, at the local level, at the municipal level, at the county level, at the state level. And we try to connect the dots for people because, you know, there’s, uh, a lot of states, a lot of cities, a lot of towns in, around, around the country. And, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. And it’s been great, you know, there’s been a lot of interest, um, in the past few years at what’s happening with prosecutors, with judges, with sheriffs, with election officials, uh, and the laws that are changing in blue states and red states that are sort of going in in different ways. And it’s been great to have this platform to cover all of these issues. 

AW | 03:19 – And when somebody watches cable news on election night, that’s maybe the first time that they’ll look at down-ballot races for the year or for the cycle. I think it’s really important to be a part of the Democratic process 24 7, and that’s what Bolts is designed to do.

DN | 03:39 – Yeah, and I think sometimes it may seem esoteric, uh, or it’s, you know, not as important as the presidential race. And really, it’s not a matter here of arguing what’s more or less important, but again, it’s the idea, like for this, it’s the same reasons people care about the presidential race, right? They should be caring also. But the other thing, then they should be more attention, you know, just as one example that I’m sure we’ll, we’ll get more chance to talk about, when the Arizona Supreme Court just very recently upheld an abortion ban. These are offices that are on the ballot at the state level, judges are elected, you know, and, and, and, and, and yet, and yet that is not part of the, part of what we think about when we think of elections. Like the, the question of how, you know, a lot of people care deeply about abortion and the US Supreme Court, which obviously is extremely important and part of the presidential race debate, but also, also very important to think about how the state level, how in each of your states, um, as you listen to the various state governments, the various state institutions are playing very important roles in shaping every day what is happening. And, and very often, if you will, if we specifically talking about elections, these are elections that aren’t even contested like very often. No, no one’s even, no one even funds to run for these offices. So very often the, the person who occupies them and is playing such important roles is just, just the person who filed for office. I mean, literally we’re talking about. 

AW | 04:57 – Just dealing with the paperwork, right? 

DN | 04:59 – I mean, no, there, there’s a lot of reasons why different offices are uncontested, which maybe go beyond this conversation, but if you look it’s just striking, like I cover a lot of DAs and prosecutor races, which again, are important for abortion, let alone other issues. And the majority of races systematically, the majority are uncontested. So, you know, the conversation stops prior to even starting. Like there isn’t even a debate. There isn’t even an opportunity for people to come in. But then there are a lot of races where there are opportunities, there are interesting things happening, and, and it’s very important to pay attention to them. 

AW | 05:29 – I think the Arizona Supreme Court is a perfect jumping off point because Arizona is going to be one of the more critical swing states for the presidential election. It seems to be now ground zero for the abortion debate. And then there’s also the issue of the Supreme Court there, which you mentioned. You wrote a piece earlier in April entitled Your State-by-State Guide to the 2024 Supreme Court elections, and it goes across 33 states high courts and dives into them. So Arizona’s kind of ground zero of the abortion debate, and then their Supreme Court is obviously having a major impact on the national debate, and many of the members are up for election this fall. Why don’t we start with your Supreme Court guide with Arizona, if you can? 

DN | 06:24 -That’s a great question, in part because when a ruling like this comes down at the state level, people’s minds don’t, don’t often go to asking who are these people and are they elected? Because at the federal level, obviously there are no elections for the US Supreme Court, right? So maybe our mind, like, you know, obviously we understand that the presidential election matters, but our mind doesn’t exactly immediately go to whether these people are elected. But at the state level, they often are. And, um, Arizona has what’s called a retention election, um, which, which some states do, some states don’t, which means that, uh, an election for judge isn’t an election between different candidates. It’s just a yes or no election as to whether a judge should be, should, should be allowed to stay on the court when their term ends. And very often a retention election doesn’t get a lot of attention. It is very rare that a judge is controversial enough in a high-profile way enough for there to be some kind of organizing or movement around, not around the retention election. because there’s, again, there’s no s there’s no actual opposition on a ballot, but that, you know, of, of all decisions, uh, decision that upholds, uh, an abortion ban on nearly all abortions, which is what the court just did in Arizona, is one that has gotten that kind of attention. And two of the judges on the court are up for retention this year. Both of them voted to uphold the abortion ban earlier in April. So that decision was four to two. You know, you can do the map easily. So of the four justices who voted to uphold the ban two are up for retention. Um, so, you know, if in a world where they were replaced by people who wanted strike down the abortion ban, that four two would’ve been two four. 

AW | 08:08 – So in a retention election, when you say replaced, right, the voters don’t really have a choice to replace candidate A with candidate B, it’s just do you like candidate A or not? So how does that play out usually?

DN | 08:22 – Yeah, that, that, that’s a great question. So you’re right that that’s what a retention is, which I think is a big reason why. I mean, it is one of the reasons why retention elections haven’t, don’t typically get, uh, a lot of, uh, organizing around it because it’s so indirect. In Arizona, specifically, the governor right now is, uh, the Democrat who is trying to stop the abortion ban from going into effect. And if there were to be, the judges were to not be retained in November, that could create two openings on the court for that governor to fail. It gets complicated, Alex, because in, um, in Arizona, governors don’t have full authority to choose whomever they want. So there’s constraint on their choice. So it’s not, again, quite as direct, but you can bet that at the very least, the governor would do what she can with the new authority she has to, to take into account. In the same way as, you know, any, any democrat or Republican governor thinks about those issues to take this into issue, into account. In fact, I will add, um, and, and maybe some people who are listening to this will remember that approximately, uh, seven, eight years ago, there was a Republican governor in Arizona controlling a republic. It was a Republicans run state government. And what did Republicans do? They were on, they, they were not happy with, um, the court. So they expanded the court, they packed to the court, they expanded the court from, from five to seven members, I believe. And they made it a little easier for the governor to get what he wanted. And that shifted the court to the right. We hear a lot about whether the court should be extended at the federal level. Well, in Arizona, Republicans did it. They expended the court, got, got conservatives in the court. And, you know, and it led to where it led a few weeks ago. The, the conditions are there, at least for in Arizona, for there to be a very unusual amount of focus around the judge elections.

(Music Break) | 10:23

AW | 11:04 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Daniel Nichanian from Bolts Magazine. So Daniel, as you mentioned, that these parties know which way an elected or potentially elected judge may lean, the problem is that a lot of citizens don’t really know much about these candidates. I mean, just when you see the turnout rates in off election years in terms of the presidential cycle, that gives you an indication that there’s fairly deep apathy amongst the electorate, which leads to a cycle of very high retention rates. One would imagine reelecting, these judges tends to be a fa to comp plea of, of sorts, doesn’t it? 

DN | 11:49 – In most cases, yes. It’s, what’s very interesting about the Supreme Court election is that they’re very important everywhere. You know, we, we, again, we’re talking about the fate of abortion in a state can come down to it, and there are other states we could talk about where that’s really come down to the state court. But it so depends on the state. Like in Wisconsin, it’s like the state where Supreme Court election is as important as anything else in terms of the amount of money it gets and so on. But then in other states that even, even in swing states, like I’m thinking of off the top of my hand of Oregon and Georgia, where it’s exceedingly rare to even have a contested election where people just incumbents just, just run unopposed cycle after cycle, where the positions of the justices ha hasn’t been, discussed in the same way there’s a number of factors going to into that. But the, but depending on where you are, you might have a very different connection, understanding, awareness of your state court and, uh, different, different types of conversations around it. So that’s really interesting. And, and very much a, a state-by-state debate or situation.

 

AW | 12:52 – It reveals a lot about how there’s just not a lot of information, data-driven information for voters on these very important issues of how we’re going to proceed with our law enforcement.  

DN | 13:05 – Yeah, I mean, that’s important to think about all the ways in which these judge elections, you know, matter greatly. I think that you’re, what makes it difficult is it’s just very hard to find, very hard to find not just information about important rulings in, in many places, but also sort of consistent, consistent analysis of how a certain judge might have ruled along the years at the federal level. Again, if the coalitions between the considered justice and, and the liberal justices are, are well understood, you know, if, if we got a news alert now that a justice had decided to, to step aside or retire, we would also of immediately understand the implications of, of that decision. You know, who, who gets to appointed. We would know how that might shape the, the federal court, but that’s very hard to reproduce at the state level. And, and some of it’s for good reasons, say state law is, is very esoteric in some cases. But, but especially with the, the federal, the federal court system becoming quite conservative in recent years at the top level and, and down, a lot of people are trying to look at their state court systems to think about what are there other because the state court system and the federal court system are, are, are quite divided. Like there is a, like, it’s possible to get a lawsuit, to file a lawsuit in, in state court and have it be won on state grounds without the federal court system like intervening because it’s not been decided on the basis of federal law and federal constitutions. So lot of progressives especially are trying to look at, at state courts and state constitutions and, and create different, a avenues of lawsuits that they could win on issues like death penalty, like, like abortion access and, and so on. So that’s been very interesting. And, so there, there’s really kind of also a new awareness of the fault lines around, around this courts that I think is borrowing a playbook from, from, from the right in some ways. Like the, uh, a very high profile example of a retention election becoming a, a thing, um, in, in, in my lifetime, which is pretty rare, is, um, in Iowa, just to, to go to, to go back in time for a moment, um, no, there, there have been almost never a case of, of state court justices fa facing controversial retention elections until the court decided to legalize gay marriage in the two thousands, I think 2006 or, uh, you know, around, around that time. And then in the, in the, uh, a few years later, conservatives managed to organize to oust a lot of the justices who had taken part in that decision. And, and that was very rare. And I think that sort of playbook has existed, but it’s quite difficult to find examples I think of that. And that playbook has also existed in California a long time ago against justices who had, uh, taken part in decisions that were perceived as too in favor of people who were in prison or incarcerated people. That’s usually the playbook that’s been used in these state elections. A “soft on crime” judge who was perceived to be an anti-death penalty in the eighties – who was not retained. It’s rare, but those are the kind of things that have happened. And now we’re seeing sort of a different way of approaching these elections where something like an abortion ban is, is what’s at issue or decisions of that nature. Voting rights decisions sometimes are at issue. So it’s a change in who is trying to pay attention to these on what grounds.

AW | 16:37 – So Daniel, you mentioned how voting rights are also affected by these Supreme Court elections. North Carolina is a perfect template for any concerned citizen to learn more about. Why don’t you explain what’s happened in the last couple of years in North Carolina and how this could be a wakeup call for a lot of those who want to continue having free and fair elections? 

DN | 17:02 – Well, what’s interesting about the court in North Carolina is that it provides such a, such a strong example of why these institutions matter, because it’s flipped in 2022 and we, there’s a, there’s a, there’s sort of a contrast before the before and after. That’s that, that’s pretty striking. So the, the court, um, in um, 20 in before 2022 was under a Democratic majority. And the, and, and the court system, um, had issued a number of decisions that was important on voting rights and racial justice actually, and other, other issues that, that are, that, that are adjacent on voting rights. For instance, it had struck down gerrymandered maps that Republicans had proposed in, in North Carolina. There was a state level decision. It didn’t have to do with the federal constitution, didn’t have to do with the US Supreme Court. It was something that the state court was doing. And in 2022, the court actually flipped to the right. There were such close elections in both 2020 and 2022 for the Supreme Court in North Carolina, um, that that produced, uh, a, uh, that, that produced the Republican majority after 2022. What one of the elections was won, the Chief Justice of North Canada was a democrat lost by I around 400 votes, 400 votes across the entire state. So it was really coming under very thin margins. But the result was, uh, a Republican court after 2022. And the Republican court very quickly signaled it was not interested in the precedence that the prior court was setting. So it, it blessed the gerrymanders, the Republican gerrymanders that had gone through, which, which has significantly strengthened the hands of Republicans in the state and is going to basically lock in Republican majority for the rest of the 2020s, um, in the state. It has also issued other decisions like it reversed a lower court decision that had allowed, um, a lot of people in North Carolina to vote because they were on probation and parole. They were, uh, outside of prison, but North Carolina does not allow them to vote. A court had given them to right to vote and the state Supreme Court took that right back. So, you know, there’s just a lot of examples in North Carolina of what, what difference it makes, who controls these court, that Democrats are in a bit of a hole now, they’re, they’re now down five two and they’re actually the only seat on the ballot there this year is a, a Democratic seat. A civil rights attorney who was named to the court by Governor Cooper there, who’s a democrat, is running for a full term. And so Democrats cannot take the court back in 2024, but it would be a huge, huge hole for them if they fell down a six one hole because they, they have a path to taking back to court over the next two cycles, I believe if they keep this seat this year. And again, it’s never too early to think about like the, the people who care about who controls power in these states are, I promise you are thinking about this way in advance. So the maps in 2030, 2031, it seems like a long time away, but the, the, whether or not they’re going to be gerrymandered, you know, for the remainder of the two, of the 2030s for the 10 year period that’s starting in six years, that, that, that decision seems distant, but it’s actually going to be, it’s actually on the line in 2024. It’s on the line in 2026 in the state court elections. So it’s interesting because in North Carolina there is some attention around it. And, and we will see how, how it evolves.

(Music Break) | 20:49

AW | 21:32 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Daniel Nichanian from Bolts. So Daniel circling back to abortion, it seems like the Republican party after 40 years of, of making this a social wedge issue has gotten what it’s wanted technically. But now that the genie is out of the bottle and they can’t put it back in. When that Arizona ruling came out, you saw a lot of Republicans from Donald Trump to Kari Lake, all backpedaling, thinking, “well, you can just go somewhere else for an abortion <laugh>,” but they’re doing whatever they can to distract the public away from the abortion issue. Now they want to focus on anything else basically besides abortion. Maybe give us a glimpse into some of the swing states and just your general take on how abortion is going to affect us in November of 2024. Daniel. 

DN | 22:27 – It’s interesting to think about the fact that there’s now, like people like Trump and Kari Lake, as you said, who are rolling back their own support for abortion bans. But in some ways, it’s not just that the genie’s out of the bottle, it’s also that these things are locked in because for a, a huge, goal for conservatives for a long time was to put people in judges’ seat who were very clearly anti-abortion and had been vetted as entire abortion by the Federalist Society, by other, other places, conservatives, other pro other things that conservatives look at because they wanted anti-abortion judges. because it was very important to them because they had been burned by some appointments at the federal level. And those judges are now Georgia judges are, are of, have a very different, analysis or retention of electoral dynamics. You know, they, they’re, they’re typically more in, typically more insulated from elections or public opinion. And, you know, the, the judges that have been installed at the federal level for life, you know, at the state level for, for eight years, six years, 10 years, don’t necessarily care that like the Republican parties in November, outcomes depends on something because they’re ideologically very co com committed to the cause that was the whole point of the movement for 20, 30 years. So that’s what we’re seeing in Arizona, right? That’s what we’re seeing in Arizona right now where, where the 1864 law has come back be because of the State Supreme Court. One thing that’s going to be very important around the country this fall, is there going to be a lot of referendums on the ballot on abortion rights. Uh, right. So Arizona and Florida are two states with abortion bans and restrictions going into effect that are going to have referendums. The Florida ban is actually going to be extremely interesting and important to follow because it has a threshold of 60% to meet, which is, which is even if, uh, abortion rights, uh, have passed almost systematically when they’ve been on the ballot. Um, 60% is, is a high threshold. So the Florida is going to be a tough campaign for referendum organizers, but a very important one, obviously it’s a humongous state, right, with, with a lot of people whose, whose rights are going to be at stake.

AW | 24:28 – And a state that’s also kind of started to lean more consistently Red. Do you think it could be back in play for Joe Biden?

DN | 24:35 – The question of whether abortion rights, uh, can make a difference at the presidential and president’s race? It is tough. I think we, we have a lot of examples of voters being very willing to split their votes between referendums and presidential races in the ways that I think if you’re like very, if you’re, maybe if you maybe are, uh, sooner of this interview, it might be a little, uh, odd because it’s like the presidential race is so marked by like, you know, like how can people on the same day vote to increase the minimum wage and vote for Republican for president, but that that’s, you know, we see that over and over again. The dots connect that in Florida, Trump named the federal justices that overturned Roe and then the Governor DeSantis signed the law that is now at issue in Florida. So the dots very much connect to Republicans who are already, you know, being put on a defensive on these issues. Whether that actually translates into the President race being more competitive, that might be a stretch. We’ll, we’ll see. 

AW | 25:37 – But also it’s just as much of a question of turnout really. Like, will abortion create more interest than just a normal presidential election? Will it get people to the voting booths? 

DN | 25:49 – Yeah, I think in the 2022 midterms, we definitely saw that right? Where it’s hard to attribute things to one could do to one cause. But, uh, but democrats were expected to do a lot worse than, than the 2022 elections. And a big reason they didn’t, what was the importance of abortion? Who it drove to the polls and, and the importance of the issue of reproductive rights, uh, that a lot of people cared, obviously a lot about. So, and that’s, there’re going to be similar, um, debates conversations, um, in, in 2024. And also there’s going to be a lot of evidence that a lot of the candidates, like Kari Lake who are now trying to take a compromise or try trying to present a position that they present as a compromise position are actually, uh, have a lot of things on the record on video as saying very, very, very different things just a few years ago. And that is going to be in ads, you know, in the fall. And that’s going to also play a role in these campaigns. I mean, no matter how red or blue estate seems to be right, like a, a razor thin election can make such huge differences. It’s sort of crazy to think in 2018 when Ron DeSantis won for the first time, he won by 0.4%, right? So it’s, you know, even if a state has leaned red, uh, since then, it’s such a tight state and the amount of policies, laws that Republicans have passed due to that tiny, tiny, tiny win in a way that has also made it easier for, for them to win next time, right? The what one of the laws they pass is to make it more difficult for people with felony convictions to vote to, to roll back constitution, amendment that voters passed. Like there, there’s so many things Republicans have done just on the basis that 0.4% victory, that it’s important to remember like the smallest election when can actually produce huge contrast and differences.

AW | 27:40 – Well, and Florida is, was, ground zero for that example in 2002 with Bush v Gore. So I highly recommend our listeners check out Bolts Magazine, Daniel Nichanian, and I hope we can have you back in the fall to pull back some more of the curtains of our democratic process. Daniel, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

DN | 28:01 – Thanks for having me. 

Narrator | 28:17 – 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 Antibalas, The O’Jays, and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, 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.

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