Redistricting: What’s at Stake in the 2020 Election

By Leo Kamin

Just days before a presidential election that people on both sides of the aisle are describing as the “most important of their lifetimes,” another less talked-about, but perhaps equally important issue is on the ballot: control of state legislatures. These local elections will have national implications — 2020 is a census year, which means that in 2021, many state legislatures will be redrawing congressional districts. Which party takes control of this redistricting process will have massive implications for the outcomes of local and national elections over the next decade. 

For example, in 2010, after the last census, there was a “red wave” up and down the ballot. Republicans flipped either one or two chambers in eleven states. Take North Carolina, for example, where Republicans took control of both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 and quickly enacted a redistricting plan. In the next national election, Republicans took nine of the state’s 13 Congressional seats, despite only winning 49 percent of the vote. In 2017, the Supreme Court struck down that redistricting plan, determining that it purposefully diluted the voting power of Black North Carolinians. The General Assembly, still Republican-controlled, passed a new map, designed using complicated computer programs that ensured another Republican advantage. In the next national election, Republicans won 10 of 13 seats, receiving just 53 percent of the vote.

These are the stakes. The parties that take control of state houses in 2020 will have the ability to massively warp their states’ electorates over the next 10 years. 

In 2020, a number of crucially important state legislatures are in play. Going into November, Republicans control 58 chambers nationwide while Democrats only control 40. As of Oct. 21, The Cook Political Report has identified five Republican-controlled or divided states where Democrats have at least a coin-flip chance at taking back some level of control. They are likely familiar to followers of the presidential election: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Between them, these states have 42 seats in the United States House of Representatives. 

In Arizona, where Cook gives democrats a better-than-50-percent chance of taking control of the lower house and about a 50-50 shot in the upper house, millions of dollars have been spent on a few of the most important races. Spurred on by demographic change that has made the electorate younger and increasingly Hispanic, Democrats see an opportunity to take control of at least part of the legislature for the first time in 30 years. 

In Michigan, Democrats need to flip just four of the 110 seats in the Michigan House to gain a majority. Overall, more than 4.6 million dollars have been spent on the races. Much like the presidential election, the race for state house hinges on the suburbs. One of the most high-profile state races is in Oakland County, in suburban Detroit, where local nurse Julia Palver is challenging an incumbent Republican. Over 1.4 million dollars have been spent on the race. Oakland County, a historically Republican district, narrowly went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. President Donald Trump held a rally there on Oct. 29, just five days before election day. 

The race is similar in Minnesota, where Democrats currently control the lower chamber of the state legislature and the governorship. Democrats are looking to pick up four of the 67 senate seats to achieve a “trifecta” in the state that could give them more expansive legislative power going forward. The key, again, will be the suburbs. Republicans across the state, especially in the areas surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, are facing strong Democratic challenges from a number of candidates with million-dollar backings. Democrats have outspent Republicans more than two-to-one statewide. 

In North Carolina, Democrats would need to pick up a net of nine seats in the 50-member Senate, which seems unlikely. Democrats do have a chance, though to take back the House, where they only need to flip six of 120 seats. They have learned their lesson from 2010, spending record amounts of money on races across the state. The key for Democrats will be the Charlotte suburbs, where many districts have quickly moved to the left and where some house races are expected to be decided by a few hundred votes. 

In Pennsylvania, which is perhaps the most important state in the race for the presidency, Democrats are hoping to take over the lower chamber of the General Assembly, where they will need to flip just nine seats. Pennsylvania has not rebounded toward Democrats as quickly as other traditional “blue wall” states in the Midwest and Great Lakes that went to Trump in 2016, like Wisconsin and Michigan, so Democrats face a tough contest. Unlike other swing states where Democrats are mainly on the offensive, they will be defending a number of imperiled seats from Republican challengers, especially in the rural and increasingly-red western part of the state. They will look to make up the difference in the suburban areas surrounding Philadelphia. 

Texas is another state that some Democratic operatives are eyeing as potentially flippable. Democrats would need to take just nine seats to gain control of the House; Cook says that this is unlikely. Still, if Democrats could gain a foothold in the chamber, they could have a say in the redistricting process that would influence the makeup of the nation’s second-largest congressional delegation, a prospect that has led progressive groups to pour millions into elections statewide. The party’s efforts in the state are happered, as they are in many others, by post-2010 Republican-drawn state legislature maps that give that party a significant advantage.   

This is perfectly illustrative of the stakes in 2020. In a system where the party that wins a majority draws the maps, political power begets more political power. This year’s state legislative races, some of which will be decided by mere hundreds of votes, will determine the balance of power for the next decade.