Zack Space wants to help restore American democracy from one of the last places you’d expect: the desk of the Ohio State Auditor.
I’m an intern on Space’s campaign this semester. In lieu of attending a formal political event, I sat down for an interview with Space to discuss what he’s campaigning on in the 2018 auditor race, how his campaign relates to the broader issues facing American democracy today, and why both of these things should matter to the voting public.
Space, a former two-term Congressman from Tuscarawas County, is running his campaign on a simple promise: “fixing our broken democracy”. The position of state auditor is better equipped to tackle such a goal than you might think. The auditor has a seat on the state redistricting committee, giving him an important role in drawing the state’s legislative districts. He also has the power to conduct performance audits, reviews of state governmental activities designed to assess the effectiveness of the government’s use of resources. If elected, Space hopes to use his seat on the redistricting committee to aid in the fight against partisan gerrymandering, and his power to conduct performance audits to help ensure the accountability of elected officials.
Space offers some convincing reasons that both of these issues are especially important in the political landscape of 2018.
For Space, there are two reasons why ending gerrymandering now matters more than ever: technology and party polarization. He explains that “the technology associated with map-drawing has gotten so advanced that they can draw these maps now with precision, in ways that only are designed to concentrate political power and advantage—in a hyper-partisanized world, allowing partisan figures to draw maps solely with partisan concerns is a problem in and of itself, and with the technology it’s a monumental problem.”
Both of these issues—the abuse of new redistricting technology and stronger partisan motivations in today’s state legislatures—pose real dangers to democracy in the U.S. today. The Republican Party has pioneered the use of sophisticated mathematical techniques to maximize and secure their partisan advantage in legislative races. And though blue-state gerrymanders are less common, Democrats have committed similarly egregious abuses in Maryland.
Older redistricting techniques were potentially risky for the party in charge, allowing a sizeable possibility that their opponents could win big by eking out a victory in the districts the winners thought they had secured for themselves. But the new technology allows the redistricting party to cement their advantage with precision. A 2010 Wisconsin electoral map approved by the state’s Republican government recently drew attention for its partisan audacity and ruthless efficiency, securing the GOP a built-in 8-to-10 point advantage in state legislature races.
Such measures point towards a growing danger of what political scientist Ozan Varol calls “stealth authoritarianism”—the use of legally legitimate methods by powerful individuals to undermine the democratic process in their favor. The Supreme Court has okayed partisan district maps in the past, but recent gerrymandering efforts are a different beast entirely. The Court is set to hear a number of recent gerrymandering cases in the ensuing year, but it is unclear how they will ultimately rule.
Space’s concerns over the accountability of those in government strikes at the core of another highly important issue facing American politics today: the influence of money in our politics. Space wants to use performance audits to expose the influence of moneyed special interests on state elected officials, which he says has become more and more pronounced nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He explains that “When money is a predominant influence in the process, it does compromise the whole notion of one man, one vote—[instead, it’s] the more money you give, the more power you have.”
A major 2015 MSNBC/New York Times poll revealed that 80 percent of Americans think money has too much of an influence in the nation’s politics. This reveals a general suspicion nationwide that elite wealthy interests have taken democratic power out of the hands of citizens.
Such a suspicion could easily lead citizens to lose faith in the democratic process. As Jan-Werner Muller explains in What is Populism?, an electorate without faith in democracy is more likely to support candidates who undermine democratic norms. According to Space, we can help prevent such an outcome by restoring Ohioans’ faith in democratic government before it’s too late.
If Space is elected and is able to follow through on his campaign promises, he could prove a key figure in reversing democratic backsliding at the state level. His positions on his core issues would help restore fairness and accountability to the state democratic process. It’s also important to note that Space is running in a state that went eight points in the red for Trump. A campaign centered around the importance of democratic values might help renew Ohioans’ support for democracy all on its own. As the Toledo Blade reported, Space’s timely message could give him an edge in a state increasingly wary of its political elites.
But can Space win in November? The answer is far from clear. In today’s volatile political environment—and especially in a state threw its support behind Donald Trump—it’s difficult to say whether a pro-democracy message like Space’s will resonate enough with voters to overcome their grievances. Our political landscape is increasingly polarized along party lines. And as Milan Svolik shows, in highly polarized societies, voters’ ideological preferences tend to outweigh their support for democratic norms.
Space won’t make any predictions, but he does have faith in his message: “Nobody really knows what direction the election goes in every given year, politics is becoming more difficult to predict. [But] I will say this—our message about the need for political reform is resonating…It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue, it’s just an issue based on fairness.”
In spite of the uncertainty, recent waves of civic interest in state elections can only bode well for Space.
Buoyed by enthusiasm from “The Resistance”, Democrats entered state legislatures in droves in New Jersey and Virginia after their 2017 elections. Progressive citizen-activist groups are now increasingly setting their sights on the 2018 midterms. Space thinks that these groups’ concerns for social, economic, and environmental justice dovetail well with his pro-democracy message. If true, that might just help propel him into office. “There’s a growing understanding…that [these groups’ goals] are impossible to attain without reaching a certain sort of political justice,” he says, “and that means supporting basic democratic principles…There’s a definite correlation.”