Down-ballot races, while far less buzzworthy and exciting, are in many ways more important than federal elections. That’s because state and local governments, properly inspired, can step in and make the changes that Washington is often too deadlocked to accomplish, changes that can eventually serve as the framework for federal legislation. For instance, Rahm Emmanuel worked to start a universal pre-K program as mayor of Chicago, an idea that President-Elect Joe Biden championed in his campaign. And it can certainly happen under moderate Republican leadership as well. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney implemented a statewide healthcare reform that served as the prototype for former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam introduced the Tennessee Promise, which guaranteed free enrollment at any state community college for all public school graduates in the state.
And those down-ballot races, particularly state legislature races, are particularly critical in a census year like 2020, because those elected will control their respective state’s decennial redistricting. This often means the majority faction drawing absurd district lines to ensure that their political power holds in the coming decade, even if a majority of the electorate opposes the controlling party. The Republican Party has made this practice, known as gerrymandering, a near-perfect science- a means to maintain an extremely disproportionate amount of power. This system tends to be most vulnerable to uprooting towards the end of a decade (or in a census year), as demographics have gradually shifted from the last census. 2018 saw Democrats gain ground in many Republican-controlled legislatures, and 2020 was an opportunity to completely close the gap in some states.
While we’ve been fairly optimistic in our analysis of the presidential election and federal congressional races, there is little positive to say about how the most important state legislature elections have played out in the South. Let’s take a look at a few states.
Texas: Democrats had no realistic chance of taking a majority in Texas’s state senate, but needed only to flip nine districts in the state’s House of Representatives in order to assume the majority and have a say in next year’s redistricting. They didn’t. While results are still unofficial, and a handful of races have yet to be called, Republicans will continue to hold a clear majority in both chambers of the state legislature, and will no doubt use that majority to gerrymander their way into greater power during next year’s redistricting process. Texas Republicans have gone as far as to indicate that they intend to draw district maps based on citizen voting age population, rather than the standard total population, which will exclude considerations for Texans who are not yet old enough to vote but will be at some point in the next decade, as well as immigrants in the state who may gain citizenship in the next decade.
North Carolina: In a state that has been plagued `by controversial policies from its Republican legislature (like a 2016 bathroom bill that discriminated against transgender people), many have believed that the tides have been shifting in the state since Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor four years ago. And, indeed they are: while Donald Trump and Thom Tillis are still likely to maintain a slim majority or plurality of votes cast in the state, both races remain too close to call as final absentee ballots are received and counted, and Roy Cooper has been re-elected. But statewide elections are a very different beast from district elections, particularly in North Carolina, the most gerrymandered state in the country. Democrats in the state have continued to struggle to gain ground, losing seats in the state House of Representatives, and flipping just one of the five seats needed to gain a majority in the state senate. Of course, this means Republicans will be free to gerrymander the state in its favor even further, but just as important is what they will not do: expand the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, which would grant healthcare coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. (For more on this, be sure to read our deep dive on healthcare.)
Georgia: Georgia has been a bright spot for progressive politics in this election. At the time of this writing, President-Elect Biden holds a lead just shy of eight thousand votes over Donald Trump in the state, and, as we discussed yesterday, Democrats won two key U.S. House of Representatives races. But the results are less thrilling in the state legislature races. Republicans on the national level have poured millions of dollars into defending the party’s majority in Georgia’s legislature, and the effort seems to have paid off. While Georgia is demonstrating real progress, Republicans will hold all the cards in the state’s redistricting process next year, and will likely pay very close attention to the Atlanta suburbs that have largely turned on them in recent years.
Florida: Democrats gaining a majority in either chamber of Florida’s legislature was always a longshot, but in an election as historic as 2020’s, the party held hope that it could be done. Unfortunately, they fell short. Republicans maintained their majority in the state senate, and actually increased their majority in the state’s House of Representatives to 78-42. Florida voters have passed ballot initiatives in recent years to stop the damaging effects of gerrymandering in their state, but the Florida Supreme Court- one of the most partisan, conservative state supreme courts in the nation- has done little to require the Republican-controlled government to enforce those laws. There’s no reason to expect that to change in the coming year.
The year ahead will likely see most southern states be further gerrymandered to keep young and Black voters (two demographics that tend to lean left) from being fully represented in the state government. At this point, there is little that can be done to stop that from happening, but most state legislators will be up for re-election again in two years. That means we have two years to raise awareness of what the lawmakers are doing, and why many of them should be voted out.