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Tennessee’s expulsions of two legislators highlight that it’s the least democratic state

After his expulsion Thursday from the Tennessee House in response to a peaceful protest for gun control, state Rep. Justin Jones — one of two Black Democratic legislators expelled by the Republican-controlled statehouse — said that “what the nation is seeing is that we don’t have a democracy in Tennessee.”

Chillingly, data offers some support for Jones’s contention. According to one scholar’s research on democracy in the US, Tennessee is indeed the least democratic state in the entire country.

The research here comes from University of Washington political science professor Jake Grumbach, who wrote a 2022 paper (later expanded into a book) developing the first-ever numerical system for ranking the health of democracy in all 50 US states.

Grumbach’s State Democracy Index (SDI) grades each state on a series of metrics — like the extent to which a state is gerrymandered at the federal level, whether felons can vote, and the like — and then combines the assessments to give each state an overall score from -3 (worst) to 2 (best).

The following maps, taken from his paper, shows each state’s grade on the SDI in 2000 and in 2018. You’ll see that Tennessee is by far the lightest-colored state on the 2018 map — meaning it has the lowest score of any state in the country:

Jake Grumbach/American Political Science Review

Tennessee’s low score in 2018 has a lot to do with its egregious partisan gerrymanders at both the state and federal level — a problem that only got worse in the post-2020 census redistricting cycle. Research from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project shows that there is not a single competitive seat in the state senate — Democrats are so efficiently packed in a handful of strongly Democratic districts that Republicans have a near-guaranteed super-supermajority (over 80 percent of seats!) in the statehouse’s upper chamber.

It’s not exactly clear, from Grumbach’s research, why Tennessee is particularly anti-democratic. But what his research does show is that it’s not isolated: The state is part of a general trend where democracy has degraded in Republican-controlled states.

“The results are remarkably clear: Republican control of state government reduces democratic performance,” he writes in his book Laboratories Against Democracy.

To ensure his results were robust, he ran 100,000 different tests of the SDI factors, each time giving different ones (say, partisan gerrymandering) more or less weight. This massive examination confirmed that “Republican control of government has a large negative effect on democratic performance across the many simulated measures.”

Interestingly, Grumbach’s research does not find a link between anti-democratic shifts in states and recent increases in a state’s non-white population. The five worst performing states — Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin — all tended “to have above-average Black population shares but see little change over time.”

Which is not to say that race is irrelevant. Rather, he argues, race matters because it matters at the national level: An overall sense of racial threat among a heavily Republican electorate is driving Republicans in power everywhere to engage in more and more anti-democratic behavior.

It’s worth noting that Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, the two expelled lawmakers, are Black — while a third white legislator who participated in the protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson, survived the vote. The racial dynamic was lost on no one, Johnson included:

“When it comes to state governmental choices over democratic institutions, the key question is not about racial politics within a state but whether the state government is part of the national Republican party,” Grumbach concludes.

In this sense, Tennessee isn’t really an outlier: It’s just ahead of the curve.

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