WASHINGTON – Abortion. Firearms. Police reform. Schools. Health care. Covid19.
These are just a few of the issues that state legislatures will pass laws on next year. Not to mention the once-in-a-decade event: redrawing national and national electoral maps after the decennial census, an exercise that can give a political party a deep and lasting advantage in law-making for years to come.
So while the campaigns for president and seats in Congress may have absorbed much of the nation’s attention, the elections to determine control of the state government – more than 5,000 legislative races away in the ballot – could also have a major effect on the lives of Americans.
About 80% of the country’s 7,383 state legislative seats are up for grabs this year, with elections in 44 states, according to Tim Storey, an expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL.
The stakes are high for both parties. Democrats are offended in this year’s state election, trying to sidetrack chambers from GOP control, but Mr Storey said Democrats were highly unlikely to make gains close to those Republicans scored in the 2010 election cycle, when they won a whopping 24 chambers, the culmination of a historic realignment of Southern legislatures to the Republican Party.
“If there are any wins, they won’t be extraordinary or off the charts,” Storey said. Demographic change is slow, he said, and the movement from one state to another is generally gradual.
Some of the chambers that Democrats aim to reverse, he said, are the Texas House, the North Carolina House and Senate, the Arizona House and Senate, the Minnesota Senate, and the Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa Houses. Republicans, for their part, are seeking to take the New Hampshire House and Senate.
Republicans have a distinct advantage in state houses today. Of the 98 partisan legislative chambers in 49 states, about three-fifths – 59 chambers – are controlled by Republicans, and the remaining 39 by Democrats, according to NCSL (The Nebraska Legislature has only one chamber and its elections are officially non-partisan.)
In all but one of the two-chamber states (Minnesota is the exception), the same party controls both houses. This is an effect of increasing polarization and the growing tendency of voters to stick with one political party at the top and bottom of the poll.
The 2010 Republican sweep coincided with a census, giving Republicans disproportionate control just as the lines were due to be redrawn for congressional and state constituencies across the country. The effects are still being felt today.
“I think most people, including Democrats, realize that Republicans were ahead of the game in 2008 and 2009 and 2010, and took control of legislatures,” said Wendy Underhill, redistribution specialist. at NCSL This time, she said, “Both teams are equally well prepared.
The redistribution process begins again next year, when the Census Bureau provides demographic data to each state. This typically happens before April 1, although the timing is less certain this year due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and continued prosecution.
Regardless of the timing, however, the outcome of next week’s poll will be crucial. While some states use non-partisan or bipartisan commissions to draw electoral maps, the process in most states is controlled by the majority party in the state legislature.
“State races have never been more important than they are this year,” said David Abrams, deputy executive director of the Republican State Executive Committee, which focuses on electing Republicans at state offices. He said his group is focused on 14 target states and that in many of them Democrats who reversed Republican seats in 2018 are now vulnerable. “The conventional wisdom is that we’re all about defense, but that’s not really true,” he said.
Issues beyond the power of redistribution are also at stake – for example, access to healthcare, which is particularly important during the pandemic.
In North Carolina, where Republicans have controlled both houses since the 2010 national sweep, Democrats are fighting to regain control and want to expand Medicaid to cover low-income Carolinians.
North Carolina is one of 12 remaining states – all with Republican-controlled legislatures and most of them in the south – that have not expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act. .
Abortion is another example. Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, said his organization was focusing not only on helping Mr. Trump win the state, but also the downward races for the Texas House, which the Democrats hope to reverse.
If that happens, Mr. Pojman said, “it would be very difficult to move our agenda forward.”
One goal, he said, is a “trigger law” that would ban abortion in the state if and when Roe v. Wade is canceled. The new composition of the Supreme Court is believed to have made such an overthrow more possible, and similar bills have been passed in other Republican-controlled states.
Abortion rights advocates say they are watching the Iowa House, which Democrats are trying to overthrow. The chamber voted this year to put to the ballot a proposal to change the state constitution to say it does not protect abortion, according to Elisabeth Smith, chief state policy and advocacy lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights group. If Republicans lose control of Iowa House, she said, the initiative would not pass a second time, a condition for putting the proposal forward to voters.
Elsewhere, efforts to curb police violence are on the line. In Minnesota, where Democrats control the House and hope to overthrow the Senate, a police bill that was passed by the legislature over the summer was weaker than the Democrats wanted. According to Jessica Oaxaca, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, it did not require officers to live in the communities they serve, nor did it completely ban strangulation holds or impose penalties for their use. It also lacked protections for police officers who report illegal uses of force, she said, adding that to pass tougher changes, Democrats would need to control the Senate.
“We have to win the majority to have the conversation,” she said.