virginia state capitol building

Virginia, which has been blue, red and purple in the last century, has a tight governor’s race, and the Assembly may be in play. The two parties see the state as a bellwether for national politics. (Forrest Smith/Getty Images)

2021 Legislative Election Preview: A (Small) Year Like No Other

By Ben Williams | Oct. 27, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

The leaves are changing, there’s a crispness to the air, and the days are getting shorter. That can mean only one thing: It’s election season!

The number of 2021 legislative elections is tiny compared with those in even years. Just 220 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats are on the ballot next week—less than 3% of the nation’s legislators. Seats are being contested only in the New Jersey Senate, New Jersey Assembly and Virginia House of Delegates. That is the fewest number of chambers up for election at any point since 2017.

Just 220 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats are on the ballot next week.

In both states, Democrats control the legislature and governor’s mansion. New Jersey Democrats hold a 25-14 advantage in the Senate and a 52-28 advantage in the Assembly. For Virginia Democrats, the advantage is 55-45 in the Assembly.

The Garden State and Old Dominion are also the only states with gubernatorial elections this fall, and Democrats are playing defense in both. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is running for a second term against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. In Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is running for a second, nonconsecutive term against Republican Glenn Youngkin for the seat left vacant by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Virginia prohibits governors from running for consecutive terms.

The 2021 elections may be small, particularly when compared with 2022, when well over 5,000 legislative seats and 36 governorships will be contested. And yet, all eyes are on these states, or at least on Virginia, where the governor’s race is tight and the Assembly may be in play. That’s because the national parties see the state—which has been blue, red and purple this century—as a bellwether for national politics.

A Year Like No Other

Every 10 years, states are required by federal law to redraw their legislative and congressional districts to comply with the one-person, one-vote rule. To do this, states rely on population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In normal times, this data would have been released to the states this past winter or early spring, and Virginia and New Jersey would be running their 2021 elections with brand-new districts.

These are not normal times.

COVID-19 and a series of natural disasters and policy choices wreaked havoc on the Census Bureau’s ability to complete its work on schedule. Many states’ timelines are dependent on the bureau meeting its obligations on schedule, and this is particularly true for states holding legislative elections in years ending in the numeral 1. When the bureau announced it would release redistricting data in August, rather than before April 1, the impact was hardest on Virginia and New Jersey. Unable to redraw their districts before next week’s elections, both states are using the last decade’s maps one more time. The last time either state was forced to do so was in Virginia in 1981.

Looking Ahead

When the 2021 election concludes, all eyes will turn to 2022, the first year with newly drawn districts in effect across the nation. Elections in years ending in numeral 2—the years when new districts are used—often bring change. The first election following redistricting results in more turnover in legislative seats than any other election. In the 2011-12 cycle, 26.6% of all legislators were newly elected; in other cycles, turnover hovers around 20%. With several states using new redistricting procedures for the first time, and with heightened polarization, it’s a safe bet the 2022 elections may lead to even more seat turnover, if not chamber turnover, than usual.

On election night and in the days to follow, NCSL will provide coverage and analysis of Tuesday’s results, including all the races plus statewide ballot measures.

Ben Williams is a principal in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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