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Analysis: Voters Opt for Status Quo in State-Level Races

By Mark Wolf | Nov. 14, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

During an election season characterized by pedal-to-the-metal national campaigning, voters in state legislative races largely kept their transmissions in neutral.

“I will give you the big headline—not much changed at the state level,” NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey said during “What the Voters Said,” an NCSL webinar devoted to state legislative races, ballot measures, election initiatives and chamber leadership changes.

Democrats, Storey said, “had the wind at their backs” heading into the election.

“They had a good election in 2018. Always the party outside of control of the White House is very successful in almost every single midterm election back to 1900, which is how far back the solid data goes. That was also the case in 2019, when Democrats picked up the Virginia Senate and House to take control of the Virginia legislature, as well as the trifecta with the governor of Virginia being Democratic.”

I will give you the big headline—not much changed at the state level. —NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey

Republicans have been in majority control across the board in terms of governors and legislatures since 2010, Storey said.

“Before the election, there were 29 legislatures controlled by Republicans, 19 by Democrats and only one (Minnesota) divided,” he said. “You have to go back to 1914 to have so few divided legislatures”

And in this election? One change. New Hampshire, where party control has changed six times in the past eight elections, flipped to the Democrats.

“That’s the only major change,” Storey said. “It leaves Republicans with 30 legislatures, 18 in Democratic hands and one split. Usually there would be 10 or 12 states switching party control.”

The Alaska House has been led by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who elected an independent speaker. “It now appears the Republicans are going to unify it and once again have a Republican speaker and Republican control,” Storey said. “In a way, that’s a pickup for Republicans.”

Factor in the governors—only 11 were up and the Republicans took the only competitive race (Montana)—and the Republicans control 27 governor’s mansions, the Democrats 23.

In terms of trifecta control (both legislative houses and the governor’s office), Republicans have 24 states, Democrats 15 states, and 11 are divided in some way. A handful of states now have veto-proof majorities, Storey said: “In Kansas, Republicans have the veto-proof majority over the Democratic governor, and the same is the case in Kentucky. In Delaware, it’s all Democrats but it’s a supermajority veto-override majority. In Vermont it is a Democratic legislature with supermajority numbers over the Republican governor.”

Changes Over Time

“Republicans took a hard downturn in the 2018 election,” Storey said, “but now they have ticked back up. This was a surprise. I think most people thought it was the Republicans playing defense. That was certainly the case when I talked to Republican and Democratic leaders around the country and people involved in the campaigns. If there was a surprise it was Republicans fared better than people expected.

“Now they control close to 55% of all legislative seats. Going back to 1900, you know, it was sort of back and forth in the first half of the last century. Starting in 1952, Democrats controlled in terms of the number of seats for 50 years, but Republicans took over in 2010 and have had the majority of seats for over a decade. This is a hard number to pin down and it is in the tentative range, but it appears Republicans may have gained upwards of 160 seats net in the two-year election cycle.”

In terms of redistricting, he said, Democrats are going to control around 50 of the U.S. House seats and Republicans will control 125.

“When I say ‘control,’ that’s a very nebulous term in many ways,” he said. “No one gets to sort of draw their opponents into oblivion because the legal limits around redistricting put limitations on that.” Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting lawmakers from favoring or disfavoring one party in the line-drawing process, he said. “You can’t say that even though, for example, in Florida, Republicans control the House, Senate and governor that they will be able to steamroll districts in a partisan way, because they have a constitutional limitation on that.”

The hardening of political sides is a key takeaway from the 2020 vote, Storey said.

“The states seem to be dialed in, with one party or the other driving in sort of longer term way than we have seen in modern history,” he said.

Leadership Changes

It appears 29 legislative leaders will change, including both chambers in Puerto Rico, said Stacy Householder, NCSL’s director of leadership and international programs. Many of those were expected because of retirements, term limits and primary losses. Two others lost their races on Election Day, though one—Vermont Speaker Mitzi Johnson—lost by 18 votes and will be involved in a recount this week.

This doesn’t take into account any changes that may await leaders who won their election but face a challenge from someone in their caucus.

“Nevada’s Senate majority leader is in a tight race that’s not yet been called,” Householder said. “It is quite possible we would see a leadership change there… Connecticut is an interesting case. Between their Senate president and their minority leaders, three out of those four actually decided to leave the legislature this year.”

Leadership results are pending in Alaska and Wyoming, she said.

How Elections Are Run

NCSL Elections Director Wendy Underhill observed, during the run-up to the election, “this is the first time the media has given as much attention to how we run elections as to who’s on the ballot or what policies might be.” That included an “unusual amount of attention to the mechanics of elections and particularly the post-election mechanics.”

In 2016, she noted, 75% of Americans voted in person, either on Election Day or during an early-voting period, and 25% voted absentee ballots of one kind or another. This year, 43% voted in person and almost 6 in 10 voted on an absentee or mailed ballot.

“What I’d like to point out,” she said, “is virtually every state is running some kind of hybrid election model.”

Lawmakers were attuned to the legal framework for running elections, including adjusting deadlines for requesting and returning ballots, adding more early voting days and even suggesting polling place requirements.

“They delayed the dates for voting, Underhill said, “used the National Guard to make sure that in-person polling places were open but really, truly, the biggest change was in the mail-in voting. Local election officials were surprised by the amount of mail that came flowing through.”

Ballot Measures

While candidates and parties got most of the headlines, voters across the country dug into an array of ballot measures, down in number from recent years because COVID-19 restricted the ability to gather signatures, but still impactful.

“Marijuana was huge. There were eight measures across five states and every single one passed,” said NCSL’s ballot measure expert Amanda Zoch.

Mississippi and South Dakota both legalized medical marijuana. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized recreational or medical use.

“That is a big change in South Dakota from no marijuana to legalized medical and recreational marijuana at the same time,” Zoch said.

Psilocybin mushrooms made their statewide ballot debut, as Oregon voters passed a citizen initiative legalizing them and decriminalizing small amounts of other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, and creating a drug addiction and treatment program funded in part by the prison savings.

Colorado and Oregon each passed tobacco taxes, but Oklahoma rejected a measure that would have reallocated money from the state’s tobacco settlement and endowment trust fund to fund the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Voters split on whether to enact abortion restrictions, with Coloradans rejecting them and Louisianans approving them.

Paid family and medical leave insurance was approved on the ballot for the first time ever, in Colorado. Washington voters stuck with the legislature’s policy on teaching sex education.

In California, voters restored the right to vote for felons on parole and stopped the plan to replace cash bail with pretrial risk assessments. Kentuckians may have had déjà vu as they weighed in on the crime victims’ bill of rights. The state passed the measure in 2018 but issues with the ballot language meant it was overturned; supporters got a second chance and voters approved it again.

Among the year’s biggest trends was that three states passed measures revising their constitutions from saying “every” citizen can vote to “only” a citizen can vote. Citizenship is already a requirement for voting and these changes seem more symbolic than anything else, Zoch said. Though in Colorado, at least, it may mean that 17-year-olds can no longer vote in primaries if they are 18 at the time of the election.

Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in a presidential election in Maine, but a ranked-choice measure failed on the ballot in Massachusetts and is pending in Alaska.

Finally, Mississippi has a new flag, with the state flower, the magnolia, replacing the Confederate battle emblem.

The webinar will be available to view on the NCSL website in a few days.

Mark Wolf is the editor of the NCSL Blog.

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