2021 Session Prep Toolkit
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Key Takeaways:

  • Redistricting allows political parties in control to redraw legislative boundary lines to maximize their advantage. 2021 redistricting will likely tell us a great deal about state policy moving forward.
  • During the 2020 elections Democrats failed to flip any legislative chambers and lost control of the New Hampshire legislature, but despite this they are in a better position headed into redistricting than one might think.
  • Many commentators measure Democrats’ chances based on the number of chambers and governorships they currently control, but that is the wrong metric. Instead we should look at what has changed since the last round of redistricting in 2011.  
  • By this measure, Democrats are in a better position than they were a year ago because they have broken Republican trifectas in several swing states and because they have gained trifectas in several high-population states.

Although Democrats failed to flip control of any state legislative chambers or governorships last week (as of this writing, votes are still being tabulated for races in the Arizona House), they are nevertheless in a slightly stronger position heading into redistricting than they were a decade ago. Over the last ten years, Democrats have gained full legislative authority in several high-population states (such as New Jersey, New York, and Virginia) and have broken Republicans’ hammerlock in key swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin.    

The baseline to compare redistricting is not the political makeup of states in 2019, but the political makeup of states the last time districts were redrawn, which is 2011. We need to look at the partisan control of state legislative chambers and governors’ mansions in 2011 compared to today.

In the 2010 midterms, Republicans rode a historic wave election to claim trifecta control in 22 states, while Democrats held full control in just 11 states. Ten years later, Republicans have trifectas in 23 states and Democrats have trifectas in 15 states. Thus, while Democrats are still at a deficit, they gained control in more states than the GOP. Furthermore, 2011 was not the high-water mark for Republican trifectas over the last ten years. Five states that had Republican trifectas at one point have fallen under divided government, compared to three Democratic states. 

Comparing 2021 State Government Control to 2011

New GOP Trifectas

New Dem. Trifectas

Lost GOP Trifectas*

Lost Dem. Trifectas*

Alaska

Colorado

Kansas

Maryland

Arkansas

Maine

Louisiana

Massachusetts

Iowa

Nevada

Michigan

Vermont

Mississippi

New Jersey

Pennsylvania


Missouri

New Mexico

Wisconsin


Montana

New York



New Hampshire

Oregon



Wyoming

Rhode Island




Virginia



(*States where a party once held trifecta control, but now legislative control is divided.)

In addition to looking at the raw number of states, it is important to also consider the nature of the states that have shifted. Republicans gained trifectas since 2011 in, with the exception of New Hampshire, eight solidly red states, where further entrenching Republican advantage is unlikely to lead to marked policy change (or new congressional seats). Democrats’ nine new trifectas also include several decidedly blue states, but also Maine, Nevada, and Colorado: states that are now or were recently considered presidential swing states. Additionally, these new Democratic state trifectas will draw the district lines in 73 congressional districts compared to 25 in new Republican trifecta states.

Several established Republican trifectas were also broken up with the election of Democratic governors. Under other circumstances, the Wisconsin legislature could attempt to draw a map that cements their control over the legislature for another ten years, but the presence of Democratic Governor Tony Evers means that they would have to moderate those ambitions in order for their maps to become enacted. Governor Whitmer in Michigan is in a similar position, although that state’s independent redistricting commission makes the politics a bit more complicated. The possibility of more bipartisan maps in these states mean that Democrats have a greater chance to get elected in future cycles, particularly considering that both states voted for Joe Biden on November 3.

As a matter of pure political interest, the parties are incentivized to maximize their advantage by drawing district lines that are as favorable to them as possible within constitutional limits. If a single party has full control over both legislative chambers and the governorship, they can follow this instinct as far as their state’s political geography allows. This is not to say that leaders will always draw maps to deal the most damage to their opposition — several states, for example, have begun leaving their mapmaking to independent commissions or the judiciary — but the more control a single party has over the process, the more likely they are to embed new advantages into the system for their side. 

These maximalist efforts will be hampered by each veto point that can stymie a party. A legislature under control by one party may want to pass a highly-partisan redistricting plan, but if the governor is from the opposition and has veto authority over the final map, the legislature will be forced to compromise and the final map will likely not be as advantageous for a single party as it might otherwise have been. This is not to say that maps from states with divided governments are “better” or more “fair,” only that they are less likely to produce a maximum advantage for a single party. 

However, not all broken trifectas are created equal. While a Democratic governor in Wisconsin could veto Republican legislative maps that they oppose, the GOP-held legislature in Kansas has a supermajority and so can pass any map they please regardless of any objections from Governor Laura Kelly (D). In North Carolina, Republicans do not have a supermajority, but state law gives the governor almost no authority over redistricting, effectively sidelining Governor Roy Cooper (D) from the process. Veto authority is also sometimes not absolute, as in Pennsylvania where Governor Tom Wolf (D) will be able to exercise veto control for new congressional district lines but not state legislative district lines. Finally, as mentioned, Michigan and Virginia, along with several other states, have adopted independent redistricting commissions, which are intended to keep either party from putting their thumb on the scale.   

Redistricting is not destiny and politics are messy, so none of this is to say that Democrats will pick up seats in statehouses or Congress. But as things stand now, Democrats are in a better legislative position than many commentators give them credit for. 

Want More Election Coverage?

For even more election coverage, visit MultiState's 2020 State Elections Landing Page, your source for up-to-date and accurate election results and analysis. Bookmark our page for updated maps on partisan breakdown of state governors and legislatures post-election, plus analysis on the races and key ballot measures from our MultiState Insider blog.