Voters appeared to have stayed the course in most legislative elections—and that’s historic, NCSL election experts say.
“One of the strongest trends in all of American politics is that the party in the White House tanks it in midterms,” NCSL CEO Tim Storey says. “That did not happen.”
Turnout was up, and that’s interesting in and of itself. … We’ve got an engaged electorate. —NCSL CEO Tim Storey
Storey, speaking at NCSL’s post-election wrap-up at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., says in midterm elections—especially after redistricting—the party in the White House could traditionally lose more than 400 seats in statehouses nationwide. But Democrats made slight gains instead.
“Republicans maintain a strong majority of state legislatures, so they are still in the driver’s seat in state policy,” Storey says. “But Democrats clearly dodged a bullet.”
He also noted that voters turned out in large numbers.
“Turnout was up, and that’s interesting in and of itself,” Storey says. “Turnout has been up for the last several cycles. We’ve got an engaged electorate.”
About 85% of legislators’ seats were on the ballot, and in the wake of redistricting, just over 20% of those seats will go to legislative newcomers, says Ben Williams, a program principal in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
Democrats have taken control in four chambers so far, he says: the Minnesota Senate, both chambers in the Michigan Legislature and the Pennsylvania House.
“That means four more trifectas for Democrats nationwide,” Williams says. Besides Minnesota and Michigan, Maryland and Massachusetts are now controlled by Democrats because the governors’ seats in those states shifted from red to blue.
And West Virginia, where Democrats controlled both sides in 2014, has shifted to strong Republican control, with a 30-4 split in the Senate and an 88-12 split in the House, “so we’re talking about total Republican dominance in West Virginia.”
Williams says at least two states appeared to have veto-proof majorities: Ohio for Republicans and Vermont for Democrats. There may be one or two more once results are final, he says.
“It’s clearly important for policymaking, because if you have a veto-proof majority for your party in the legislature and you can keep all your members in line, you have the ability to direct policy in your state, regardless of whether your governor agrees with you,” Williams says.
Amanda Zoch, project manager in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program, says anyone who voted on one or more of the 133 total ballot measures being decided on Election Day was “very, very temporarily a legislator. That’s what ballot measures are: It gives voters a chance to legislate on policy.”
Zoch noted that most of the measures this year were referred by legislators. They dealt with tax increases and decreases, election administration, wage increases (which passed), rights of organized labor (codified in Illinois, limited by the constitution in Tennessee), and control of the legislatures themselves. Voters tended not to give more control in matters such as allowing lawmakers to call special sessions, which became an issue in some states during the pandemic.
The biggest trend was abortion measures.
“Five measures were decided Election Day, and they all broke in the pro-choice direction,” Zoch says. “Abortion restrictions in Kentucky failed, and it looks like they are going to fail in Montana as well,” while California, Vermont and Michigan added the right to abortion to their state constitutions.
On measures related to guns, Iowa voters codified a right to keep and bear arms in their constitution, while Oregon voters passed the strictest controls in the nation, requiring training to obtain a permit and restricting transfer of ownership.
Zoch cites a mini-trend that began in Colorado in 2018 in which legislators ask voters for permission to revise state constitutions to remove racist language on slavery. Alabama voters agreed to an edited version of their constitution to eliminate such language and streamline what was the longest constitution in the world, at about 400,000 words. It had bipartisan support and won with 75% of the vote, which Zoch says is a reminder that “it’s hard to get unanimous consent on anything.”
NCSL Elections Director Wendy Underhill praised the work of election officials.
“Turnout was super high, and the number of glitches were super minimal, so instead of having an election where the headline afterward was what happened with our votes—absolutely not,” she says. “It’s been about who won, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”