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2023 Elections: Takeaways From Tuesday’s Off-Year Contest

Experts at NCSL’s Base Camp meeting tallied the wins and losses and looked ahead to next year, when about 6,000 legislative seats will be on the ballot.

By Mark Wolf  |  November 9, 2023

Odd-year elections are not always odd. Except when they are.

Ohio, where the political hue has sharpened to a bright red in recent years, voted for abortion access and legal marijuana.

In Virginia, a governor talked about as a late entry in the presidential sweepstakes was thwarted in his effort to build a Republican government trifecta, as the state’s voters wrenched the House from Republicans and solidified a Democratic Senate.

Ohio’s vote to enshrine reproductive rights, including abortion, in the state constitution “follows a trend we’ve seen the last couple of years,” Helen Brewer, a policy specialist in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program, told a session of NCSL’s Base Camp.

“There were over 400 legislative elections last night, and I’m glad to see the national press starting to give these the attention they deserve.”

Ben Williams, NCSL

“Every reproductive ballot measure introduced since Dobbs (the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the right to abortion) has passed.”

Ohioans turned down a ballot measure last spring that would have raised the threshold for constitutional amendments to pass from 50% of the vote to 60%.

“That was significant because (both the abortion and the marijuana) issues passed with between 55% and 60% of the vote, and had that earlier measure won, these wouldn’t have passed,” Brewer says.

Another trend, Brewer said, was Maine passing a ban on foreign spending on referendum campaigns; the measure was similar to a ban passed in Louisiana last month.

“We’ve seen (these bans) across many states in the past few years,” she says. “And a lot of states have passed these policies through statute.”

Louisiana voters added more protections to the right to worship at a church or other place of worship in the state constitution.

“Something interesting is that it explicitly stipulates any challenges will be subject to strict scrutiny,” Brewer says. “That means if someone brings a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, they will have to meet a particularly high threshold to win the case.”

After voters approve these issues, it’s up to the legislature to figure out how to implement them, she said.

“Michigan, for example, passed a lot of ballot measures on how voting takes place and the Legislature has been passing all sorts of legislation fleshing out how exactly these things are going to work, things like when ballots are sent out,” she says.

And inveterate auto tinkerers in Maine can break out their socket wrenches and headlamps and dive under the hood after the state’s voters approved a “right to repair” measure giving independent auto shops and home mechanics access to the same diagnostic tools available to dealerships.

Virginia’s legislative elections consumed a lot of cable news oxygen over the last month.

“There were over 400 legislative elections last night, and I’m glad to see the national press starting to give these the attention they deserve,” says Ben Williams, NCSL’s associate director of Elections and Redistricting, who was also at the Base Camp session.

One special election loomed large in New Hampshire, where a vacant Republican seat flipped to a Democrat, leaving the partisan count at 198 Republicans, 197 Democrats, two independents and three vacancies that will be decided in special elections. If Democrats were to win, they could flip control in a special election, something that almost never happens.

Looking ahead to next year, there is much to watch, as about 6,000 legislative seats will be on the ballot, Williams says.

“In recent years, Democrats have sort of chipped away at this Republican edge that has existed for more than the past 13 years,” he says. “It’s still a high mountain to climb, but it will be interesting to see if that continues or if Republicans reverse it and are able to significantly increase their majorities.”

Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.

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