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As State Governments Stifle Local Democracy, Funders and Nonprofits Are Fighting Back

September 11, 2019

Inside Philanthropy,

September 11, 2019-

In recent years, democracy reformers across the U.S. have been pushing back against state-level practices that undermine the ability of ordinary Americans to make their voices heard and ensure that government is responsive to their needs. But while battles over partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression have received wide attention, there’s also a growing effort to counter another threat to democratic values: state preemption. This is a practice in which state legislatures limit local authority, blocking the ability of cities, counties and towns to enact laws and make decisions that reflect the views and priorities of their residents. Fighting the widespread abuse of state preemption is an important way for foundations and major donors to build the civic power to defend democracy, while still operating within the realm of 501(c)(3) advocacy.

Weaponizing a Legal Concept

To be clear, preemption is an inherently benign legal doctrine that says one government can overrule a lower-level government’s authority. But the last decade has seen a dramatic surge in the scale and scope of state preemption bills—affecting issues as varied as environmental protections, firearms regulations, labor and employment standards, civil rights, public health, and more—that are designed to stifle local democracy. The proliferation of such laws reflects a hyper-partisan political climate in which Republicans control the majority of states, but Democrats control most cities; anti-regulatory interests exert an unprecedented sway over state politics; and federal gridlock has pushed governing and lobbying power to the state and local levels, among other factors.

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