Silencing Democracy: The Troubling Surge of Censures Against Opposition in State Legislatures
In recent months there has been a concerning rise in Republican censures against opposition within state legislatures. Throughout the country, GOP leaders have targeted lawmakers who deviate from the party's platform and principles, both Republicans and Democrats, to gain an unfair political advantage and stifle democratic debate.
These censures suppress the voice of fairly elected officials and undermine principles of free speech. By silencing opposition, Republicans nationwide have made the will of the people an afterthought, undercutting democratic practices and threatening freedom of speech so they can pass their agenda without having to listen to those who disagree.
Censuring Representative Mark Sauter in Bonner County, Idaho
In April, Bonner County Republican Central Committee issued a vote of no-confidence against Republican Representative Mark Sauter, accusing him of failing to uphold the party's platform during the legislative session. Specifically, they pointed to Sauter's vote against House Bill 314, which sought to restrict taxpayer-funded libraries from having any books or movies with descriptions of sex or nudity.
After Governor Brad Little vetoed the bill, Sauter's vote led to the failure of a House veto override, drawing criticism from the committee. Additionally, the committee highlighted his opposition to school choice legislation and his stance on Medicaid funding, claiming it contradicted party principles.
“This isn’t a surprise at all,” Sauter said about the vote of no confidence. “Representatives who have supported education and other conservative community causes have been the targets of this campaign.”
Failed Censure Attempt against Representative Chris Sander in Jackson County, Missouri
In April, a similar strategy of restricting opposition voice was employed in Missouri, where Representative Chris Sander, an openly gay Republican, faced a censure attempt by the Jackson County GOP after proposing an amendment to redefine marriage as between "two individuals" rather than the traditional definition of “one man and one woman.” The vote to censure Sander ultimately did not pass.
This marked the second censure attempt against Sander, with a previous motion in February getting dropped. Although both censures did not pass, they highlight how Republicans have tried to suppress the voice of lawmakers who challenge conservative stances on social issues.
Expulsion of Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones in Tennessee
In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers voted to expel Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, both Black Democrats, following their involvement in a gun control protest at the state Capitol.
The expulsions come after Pearson, Jones, and Rep. Gloria Johnson joined protestors who came to the state Capitol to advocate for gun-control legislation in the wake of a deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27th, 2023.
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton referred to their actions as an "insurrection," while other Republicans accused them of mutiny.
Johnson, who is white, survived the vote on her expulsion, and many have claimed that race was a factor in her not getting removed from the State House.
After immense public pressure, the two representatives were eventually reinstated in their roles. “They tried to kill democracy. They tried to expel the people’s choice and the people’s vote. And they awakened a sleeping giant,” Justin Pearson said after he returned to the TN House.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Statehouse declined to take action against Rep. Scotty Campbell, a member accused of sexual misconduct with interns. He eventually resigned.
Censuring Representative Zooey Zephyr in Montana
Another alarming instance of censure occurred in Montana on April 26, when Republican lawmakers voted to restrict representative Zooey Zephyr from accessing the House floor, gallery, or anteroom for the remainder of the legislative session. This decision marked the culmination of a week-long battle between Zephyr and Montana House Republicans.
The conflict began when Zephyr refused to apologize for telling colleagues who supported a ban on gender-affirming care for youths that they would have "blood" on their hands. In response, Republican House leaders refused to recognize Zephyr on the floor and even disabled her microphone during debates.
The tension escalated on April 24, as protesters interrupted the House session, chanting "Let her speak!" while Zephyr raised her microphone toward them. Two days later, the House voted to censure her, with members of the Montana Freedom Caucus accusing Zephyr of "encouraging an insurrection."
Zephyr expressed pride in those who stood up to defend democracy and a desire to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them. However, House Speaker Matt Regier claimed that Zephyr's decision to not follow House rules resulted in her own silence, asserting that all representatives would be treated equally. Nonetheless, it is evident that Zephyr did not receive the same treatment as other members of the chamber, underscoring the disturbing pattern of censure occurring in state legislatures nationwide.
Silencing Opposition Undermines Democracy
This pattern of censure, targeting lawmakers who deviate from party principles or belong to marginalized communities, is a concerning affront to democratic principles. Across the country, the use of censure as a tool to silence dissenting voices threatens to undermine the fundamental values of our democracy.