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State Elections 2020: A Voting Year Unlike Any Other

By Wendy Underhill | Sept. 14, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Labor Day is in the rearview mirror, campaigning is in full swing and pundits are out in force. And yet there are only two safe predictions any of them can offer: November’s elections will be unlike any other (just like 2020 as a whole is a year unlike any other), and—eventually—we’ll know which party will have control of Congress, the presidency and state legislatures.

Once the results are clear, we’ll know a lot about what policies will be pursued on the key issues Americans care about most—from how children will be cared for and educated to how we maintain public safety while protecting civil rights—along with the usuals: budgets, guns, infrastructure, abortion, taxes, health care … the list is endless. All those policy choices start in state legislatures, which often serve as proving grounds for new concepts and ideas (hence the true-but-hackneyed phrase, “legislatures are the laboratories of democracy.”)

The voters, of course, will decide which party will lead their state. But three factors might sway them this year. The white-hot presidential election with its potentially huge impact on down-ballot races, redistricting on tap for 2021 and 2022, bringing torrents of campaign money into legislative campaign coffers, and how voters decide to cast their ballots (by mail or in person) based on the COVID-19 threat.

There are 5,876 regularly scheduled legislative elections this year across the 50 states. The results of those races will determine which party controls each legislative chamber, and those chambers can be unified (same party controls both chambers) or split. Governor results, of course, can then affect state control and, in turn, states' policy agendas. 

The Lay of the Land

Going into the election, of the nation’s 7,383 legislators, 3,820 (52%) are Republican, 3,436 (47%) are Democrat, and 88 (including all 49 senators in Nebraska) are either nonpartisan, independent or from another party. Currently, 45 seats are vacant. Democrats held a majority of seats in the nation’s legislatures until the 2010 election, when Republicans took the lead. 

The national aggregate of individual legislators’ party affiliation doesn’t matter nearly as much as the number of chambers held by each party. Forty-nine states, each with two chambers, make up the nation’s 98 partisan chambers, of which 60% (59) are held by Republicans and 40% (39) by Democrats. The unicameral Nebraska legislature has just one nonpartisan chamber and is not included in the count.

That 59-39 chamber split gives Republicans a huge lead in this year’s race for legislative control. The GOP has been ahead in the chamber count since the 2010 election cycle, a blowout year when 23 chambers shifted from Democratic control to Republican plus the Oregon Senate shifted from D to tied. It was a GOP landslide year. The exact numbers of chambers held by each party have fluctuated since. The 2016 election was the high-water mark for Republican chamber control when the party held the majority in a whopping 66 chambers. In 2018, the Dems took back seven.

State Legislature Party Composition

ncsl party composition legislature

On average, 12 chambers change party in each general election cycle—that includes changes in both directions. Democrats need to net nine chambers to reach parity this year, or 10 to pass Republicans in chamber control. Democrats have opportunities for gains, yet it will be a steep climb, particularly given that, as previously noted, this is a year unlike any other. The GOP primarily will be playing defense, with Dems on defense in just a few states.

Dems hope to take control of either or both chambers in Arizona, the Florida Senate, the Iowa House, the Michigan House, the Minnesota Senate, either or both chambers in North Carolina and the Wisconsin Senate. Further reaches include the Michigan House, Texas House and both chambers in Pennsylvania. And yet, this being an unprecedented year, making guesses is dangerous indeed.

It’s also important to note that the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have races to control their legislatures as well. Some Puerto Rico contests, in particular, will be very competitive.

In 49 states it takes two chambers to tango—or at least to pass a law. Unified party control of both chambers is the holy grail from a partisan perspective. Going into the election, only Minnesota has a split legislature, with the Senate held by Republicans and the House by Democrats. This is the first time since 1914 that all but one legislature is controlled by a single party. Republicans hold the lion’s share of unified legislative control, with 29 states, or 59%, while Democrats hold both chambers in 19 states, or 38%.

The number of chamber flips will determine the number of divided legislatures when 2021 legislative sessions begin. That will shed light—or at least add a data point—as to whether the single split legislature currently is a statistical anomaly or a sign of increasing polarization.

Factoring governors in, far more state governments are divided than legislatures. The GOP controls all three power positions (the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion) in 21 states; Democrats control all three in 15 states; and 13 states have split party control among the three.

In 2012, there were only 12 splits, and throughout the 2010s, splits have numbered less than 20. On the other hand, in the 2000s, there were always more than 20 states with divided governments. Does that mean ticket-splitting is waning and polarization is waxing? Could be.

With governors’ races likely to favor the status quo this year, any change in party control is apt to come from changes in the legislative branch. In other words, the political battle for states comes down to this year’s legislative races.

Eleven states have an election for governor in 2020, and in 10 of those states, party control is not expected to change. In Montana and Utah, the seats are open, but according to the venerable Cook Political Report, only Montana’s race is a toss-up. The current governor there is a Democrat.

With governors’ races likely to favor the status quo this year, any change in party control is expected to come from changes in the legislative branch. In other words, the political battle for states comes down to this year’s legislative races.

Presidential Coattails

Or—perhaps—it comes down to who wins the White House. Traditionally more people vote in presidential elections than in any others. In 2016, 55% of voting-age citizens voted. This year, turnout is likely to go up, judging by the turnout in the 2018 midterm elections when 53% of voting-age citizens voted, the most in a midterm election in four decades. Why? In a word, Trump. Neither those who love him nor those who loathe him will be deterred from voting.

What’s less well-known is whether his coattails are long enough to reach the legislative level. Voters “may come to make a comment about Trump, pro or con,” says Amy Walter, the national editor of The Cook Political Report. “Then they’re going to go down the ballot.”

The top of the ticket matters—but it isn’t conclusive. Each state is different, and “we don’t care how they do it in Washington” is a common refrain outside the beltway. Each candidate runs her or his own campaign.

“If you’re in a race in a battleground state, it may be hard to get the traction” needed to break out from your party’s national reputation, says Garrett Arwa, from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “I find it hard to believe that either party will win down ballot when the top of the ticket doesn’t do well.”

On the other hand, some Republicans who are disaffected with the president might skip that race and vote red all the way down the ballot. This is a year unlike any other, after all. 

“Every election is nationalized now,” says Adam Kincaid, of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “This is a product, for better or worse, of social media. It nationalizes everything.” 

Redistricting

In most states, legislatures are in charge of redistricting—the once-in-a-decade supremely consequential political activity. And, this is the year when most of the nation’s legislative redistricters are elected.

Generally speaking, the majority party controls the redistricting process. It must comply with strict laws preventing racial discrimination and requiring districts to be even in population or risk having courts overturn its work. But within those bounds, parties are likely to seek some (or a lot of) political advantage as they finalize districts that won’t change for a decade.

Up for election this year in states where the legislature controls redistricting and the governor has veto power, are:

  1. All state senators in 14 states.
  2. Roughly half the state senators in 23 states.
  3. All state representatives in 37 states.
  4. Half the state representatives in North Dakota.
  5. Governors in eight states.

In other words, 2020 is the big year for electing the people who will draw the maps. With that much at stake, the parties are playing for keeps.

“There will be more focus on legislative elections this cycle than there ever has been. That’s not an overstatement.” —Adam Kincaid, National Republican Redistricting Trust

“There will be more focus on legislative elections this cycle than there ever has been,” Kincaid says. “That’s not an overstatement.” He pointed to the last cycle, when the Republican State Leadership Committee focused on legislative elections through a process called REDMAP, which many say is why Republicans won so handily in 2010, setting them up to draw maps for this decade.

Democrats are on an equal footing this cycle. Arwa says their goal is to break up GOP dominance of the three power positions in five priority states: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. If they can do so, they’ll ensure their party a place at the redistricting table—and they’ll expect to see their interests better reflected in final maps. Arwa points out that the North Carolina legislature is running on court-ordered maps this year, likely making it harder for Republicans to hold control (and proving how important redistricting is in creating the electoral landscape).

Cutting back majorities is almost as good as taking control, from a redistricting perspective. Arwa mentioned Kansas as an example of where the governor is a Democrat but the GOP has a veto-proof majority. The governor doesn’t have much power when it comes to redistricting if her veto can be easily overturned.

“The results will be interesting, but when all the money is tallied and the votes are counted, I don’t expect there will be many chambers that will flip from one party to the other,” Kincaid says. “Where the president is strong it will help the GOP, and where Biden is strong, it will help the Dems.”

COVID-19 and Election Administration

When the COVID-19 disease hit in the spring, states scrambled to reschedule primaries and respond to voters’ demands to avoid going into polling places by voting absentee (aka vote by mail, vote at home, advance vote and other phrases). Although many Americans have now become more comfortable going out than they were “way back then” states are preparing for a huge increase in absentee/mail voting this fall—at the same time they are setting up in-person voting facilities designed with safety in mind. Some states are even experimenting with drive-through voting. This will be a year of voters’ choice about how to cast their ballots as well as who to mark them for.

Repeatedly, President Donald Trump has expressed a lack of faith in the integrity of all-mail voting—although he does not speak for his whole party on this. Many Republican secretaries of state, governors and legislators see it differently. Democrats are encouraging their voters to vote early—whether that means in person when early voting is available and unlikely to be crowded, or by absentee ballot.

Does it make a difference? The title of a research report from Stanford University answerers that:  “The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote-by-Mail: Evidence From County-Level Roll-Outs.” More and more, using mail-in ballots has increased turnout across parties, with no statistically significant political benefit to one side or the other.

There may not be an inherent partisan advantage to having more people voting by mail—but there will be an administrative “unintended consequence.” Election geeks expect it to take longer this year than ever before to get final results. It’s always been true that election-night results are unofficial, with final results coming after all votes are tallied.

This year, with more absentee ballots coming in days after Election Day, the end of election season won’t be at the close of the polls on Nov. 3, but rather when states finish “canvassing” (or counting) ballots. And that could take a week or even as much as 10 days. Then factor in the unusual presidential contest, redistricting bringing money into legislative races at a rate never before seen and the methods of voting garnering as much media attention as the candidates themselves, and it's clear this election will indeed be unlike any other. Along with social distancing and handwashing, patience is recommended.

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