On election night (and throughout election week) most of us were very tuned in to the big national races, such as the presidential race and the races for congressional seats that could affect the balance of power in Washington.
Less noticed, but arguably equally consequential, were the races for thousands of seats in state legislatures around the country. Those races are important for lots of reasons, but they have a direct effect on national politics because it’s the majority party in state legislatures that get to create the voting districts that send representatives to Congress.
Republicans drew most of the district maps used during the past decade, and they’re responsible for some of the most flagrant examples of gerrymandering. That is, they drew district lines in funny ways to organize voting blocks in ways that practically guarantee success for GOP candidates in a majority of the districts in the state.
A 2018 Center for American Progress study showed that in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections an average of 59 candidates won House seats only because of unfairly drawn district lines. Of the 59, an average of 39 per election shifted in favor of the Republicans while an average of only 20 shifted in favor of Democrats.
The founders of the U.S. Constitution thought it should be lawmakers who are accountable to the citizenry who draw the electoral map. A lovely idea, but in real time it’s a bit like letting the winning team write the rules of the game.
State supreme court judges will be asked to work out whom the maps represent.”
“The ones that continue to pop up . . . [are] states like North Carolina, Texas, and Pennsylvania,” says Harvard Kennedy School political science professor Benjamin Schneer. Largely because of the district lines, it’s common for one party in such states to represent a minority of voters in the state yet hold a majority of seats in the state legislature, Schneer says. “And then [they] can draw maps that really, really advantage that party in future elections.”
Weird-looking districts can give rise to weird politicians, such as Ohio’s Republican representative Jim Jordan, a hyper-partisan GOP attack dog and disinformation amplifier for President Donald Trump. Jordan’s home district—which looks like an elongated duck—includes a line of 12 counties and a “bill” that cuts through five more. It’s deep red country, and more than 90% white. With such a politically and culturally homogeneous base to answer to back home, Jordan is free to go as hard right as he pleases.
Jordan’s district, and hundreds of other districts across the country, were last drawn back in 2011 after the release of new census data. The previous year a huge shift in the control of statehouses had taken place: Going into the 2010 midterms, Democrats held majorities in 52 legislative chambers, and Republicans controlled 33. After election night, Democrats controlled just 31, and Republicans controlled 52. This gave unprecedented numbers of Republicans control over the drawing of new district maps.
What happened in 2020
Democrats have spent the last decade trying to win back all the legislative seats they lost in 2010. They took a big step in the 2018 midterms, winning a net gain of 308 seats in 87 state legislatures while the Republicans lost 294. Then in 2019, Democrats flipped both the House and the Senate in Virginia.
The party hoped to take another big step in 2020. Before the election, polls suggested that support for Joe Biden (and disgust with Trump) might extend down the ballot to Democratic candidates for state legislatures—enough, perhaps, to flip statehouse majorities blue and put Democrats in a position to draw more district maps in more states in 2021. (Democrats, it should be noted, aren’t innocent in all this and do gerrymander too.)
What actually happened was quite different. Only two state chambers in the whole country changed hands; Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate in New Hampshire. An average of 12 statehouses flip in each election; 2020 brought the least change of statehouse control of any election since 1928.
As it stands now Republicans have majority control in the legislatures of 30 states. In 23 states they control the legislature and the governorship (a “trifecta”). Democrats control the legislatures in 18 states and have trifectas in 15 states. Alaska’s results remain undecided, while Minnesota’s majorities are split between the state’s two legislative bodies.
“Even in chambers where they could have picked up seats, they also lost seats in some places,” says Boston University political scientist Max Palmer, who specializes in gerrymandering and districting reform.
Palmer adds that “2010 set the foundation for Republican control of many states for gerrymandering,” This year, “that same problem will probably be even more extensive, with Republicans having even more state legislative control in many states.”
A glass half full
Both Democrats and Republicans have found things to like about the results of the election, while also acknowledging the might-have-beens.
“In some of these states we’ve made significant progress, but we’re halfway there,” says Catherine Vaughan, co-executive director of the progressive group Swing Left. “And it’s typically harder in a presidential year because typically the midterms favor the party that’s not in power in the White House . . .”
Vaughan points out that Democrats were at least able to defend the majority of their 2018 statehouse gains in 2020.
Patrick Rodenbush, of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, suggests the national scorecard of statehouse control may not be as important as which party controls map drawing in battleground states. In 2010, he says, Republicans won control of legislatures in some very consequential battleground states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina.
“What we’ve been able to do in those six states in particular is either break up Republican trifecta control [control of both houses and the governorship] in a state like Pennsylvania, or pass redistricting reform in Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia,” Rodenbush says.
Ohio passed a law saying that at least half of the minority party must approve the map drawn by the majority party, which has been reliably Republican. Michigan will have its own totally independent redistricting body. Virginia will use a hybrid model where private citizens and legislators will work together to draw maps.
“So those are six states that have 79 congressional seats and were all horribly gerrymandered by Republicans a decade ago and will not be in the future,” Rodenbush says.
Like Vaughan, Rodenbush doesn’t sound too distraught about the outcomes of the 2020 statehouse races. “We would have liked to have done better in Texas and Georgia and Florida, but all in all we feel like we’re in a pretty good spot moving forward to the actual [map] creation process,” Rodenbush says.
Ryan Quinn, political director, Swing Left
“I think we will see a lot of attempts to keep the unfair maps that are currently in place and preserving them.”
Republicans aren’t exactly distraught either. In fact, they’re quite happy about the blue wave’s no-show in down-ballot races. Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, calls the outcome a “best-case scenario” for the GOP.
“Republicans defended every single legislative chamber that they held,” Kincaid says. “Some of them were very close going in the election, like in Arizona, and a few other places where it was almost a foregone conclusion in the eyes of a lot of people that those chambers would flip, and they didn’t.”
Actually, no statehouse in America flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2020, he points out.
“And it wasn’t just legislative races,” Kincaid says. “The gubernatorial races were all a success for the GOP in regard to redistricting, because every governor with a veto over congressional redistricting that was up in 2020 was a Republican victory.” The only governorship that changed hands was in Montana, where the Republican Greg Gianforte will replace the Democrat Steve Bullock.
The new maps
The big question, of course, is whether the balance of power in the statehouses today will set the stage for a fairer, and less partisan, map-drawing process than what we saw in the last decade.
“I think we will see a lot of attempts to keep the unfair maps that are currently in place and preserving them, but I think that in certain states they’re not going to have that option,” says Swing Left’s political director, Ryan Quinn.
Wisconsin, for example, which is considered ground zero for extreme partisan gerrymandering over the past decade, still has a Republican-controlled legislature but Democrats have retained the governorship.
“They were able to preserve Democratic governor Tony Evers’s veto, which includes powers over those new maps that have to be drawn,” Quinn says. Republicans didn’t win enough seats in the legislature to create a veto-proof majority. That veto could put a big check on Republican hopes of maintaining the badly gerrymandered district lines in the state.
This may become a familiar dynamic in the map-drawing process that’s about to start.
“What it will definitely look like is fights between Republican-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors,” Quinn says.
And when disagreements over maps can’t be worked out in the state capitol, they go to the state courts. State supreme court judges will be asked to work out whom the maps represent, how biased they are, and whether they fit with the letter and spirit of the state’s constitution.
Independent redistricting commissions will play a bigger role in drawing maps than they did a decade ago. Ten states will rely on them to draw new maps. They are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and Washington.
In Michigan, for instance, a grassroots petition drive collected enough signatures to get the question of whether to form an independent commission on the ballot, and the ballot measure passed in 2018.
The way these commissions are formed varies from state to state. Some states allow both political parties to select an equal number of people to participate, and then an independent person is chosen to be the tie-breaking vote.
Harvard Kennedy School’s Schneer says that even when the map-drawing process is removed from the statehouse, politics has a way of seeping back in. The legislature might increase or reduce the resources they give to the commission, Schneer says. They may attempt to influence the membership choices the commission makes, although that’s difficult, he adds. They might try to tie the commission up in litigation over maps they don’t like.
There is a deadline for the creation of the new maps. Virginia will likely get the new census data first, because it holds elections in off years and will need its new districts to be finished by late 2021. For everyone else, the new district maps will be needed in 2022. Between now and then there’s going to be a lot of wrangling—and very likely a lot of lawyering—in state supreme courts.