The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

This year’s election season is about a whole lot more than who will live in the White House on Jan. 20. From NCSL’s perspective, it’s all about who will be running the states.

Ballot going into ballot boxIn brief, 2020’s state elections …

  • Include regularly scheduled elections for 5,876 of the nation’s legislative seats. That’s 80% of all legislative seats—with approximately 30 special elections as well.
  • Are all about legislative control. Eleven governors are on the ballots, too, but only one of them—in Montana—is considered a toss-up. Therefore, if the political balance changes in states, the change will come from the legislative races.
  • Could change the partisan make-up of legislatures. As it now stands, the GOP has the majority in 59 chambers. Democrats hold 39. (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature isn’t included because its members are elected on a nonpartisan basis.) Every election brings changes to control, and this one will too—expect at least 8-10 chambers to flip.
  • Matter for policymaking. The 116th Congress has enacted 163 bills since January 2019—more than 65 were commemorative coins, naming buildings, etc. Twenty were reauthorizations. During that same time, states enacted 15,000 new laws on policies that matter most to Americans—policing, health care, education, etc.
  • Could, for the first time, put women in more than 30% of legislative seats around the nation. In 1983, women held just 13% of legislative seats. Since then it’s been a slow increase, remaining steady throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Today, 29% of the nation’s state legislators are women, with significant variation from state to state.
  • Will determine who holds the reins for redistricting next year. After census data is delivered, each state will redraw its district boundaries for seats in the U.S. House and both legislative chambers. In most states, the people who will be doing the line drawing (or appointing the people who will be doing the line drawing) will be elected this November.
  • Include 124 statewide ballot measures in 32 states, Washington, D.C., and two territories. These are the policy choices that voters weigh in on directly. This year’s measures touch on redistricting, elections, marijuana, abortion, gambling, taxes and so much more.
  • Are run by rules set by the states. The federal government sets the date for when congresspeople are elected, but beyond that, states decide everything: when polling places open and close, dates for requesting and returning absentee/mail ballots, ID requirements, limits on electioneering and more.
  • Are decided by a combination of in-person votes and absentee (or mail) votes. Each vote carries just as much weight—but absentee/mail ballots may take longer to count in some states.
  • Aren’t official until the date of certification, which varies state by state. Wyoming has the earliest certification date—Nov. 11. Several states won’t certify all elections until January 2021.

Wendy Underhill is the director of elections and redistricting at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.