Elections & Campaigns
Supermajorities are an Overlooked Dynamic of the 2020 State Legislative Elections
September 23, 2020 | Bill Kramer
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On November 3, 2020, voters will go to the polls to elect 5,877 state representatives, 11 governors, and 114 statewide ballot measures. While much of the media attention focuses on the presidential and congressional races, these state-level elections will determine public policy close to home for every American. MultiState will keep track of these important elections, their political consequences, and potential policy changes for 2021 and beyond.
Democrats have gained ground in nationwide governors offices since their 2017 low point of only 16 governorships (to 33 Republican). Currently, Republicans hold 26 governorships and Democrats hold 24.
However, while politicos continue to forecast political headwinds in the Democrats’ direction, 2020 does not appear to be a year where Democrats will gain much ground when it comes to governorships. There are only eleven gubernatorial races in 2020 (down from 36 governor races in 2018). Six of which are projected to be safe seats for the incumbent party (Utah, Indiana, West Virginia, and North Dakota for Republicans and Washington and Delaware for Democrats) and only one governor's race — the election in Montana to replace term-limited Democrat Steve Bullock — is rated as a “Toss-Up.” The next closest race according to forecasters is North Carolina’s Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper, which is currently rated as “Lean Democrat.” The three additional governors races (Missouri, Vermont, and New Hampshire) are all currently held by Republicans and are rated as “Likely Republican” by forecasters.
Currently, across the 99 state legislative chambers, there are 3,849 Republicans, 3,455 Democrats, 34 Independents, and 45 vacant seats. The chambers themselves (each state has an upper and lower chamber, except unicameral Nebraska) are politically aligned in each state. The same party controls both chambers of the legislature in every state except Minnesota (Democratic Senate and Republican House) and Alaska (Republican Senate and the House is controlled by a coalition of Democrats and centrist Republicans). In total, Republicans control 59 state legislative chambers, Democrats control 39 legislative chambers, and a coalition controls the Alaska House.
But how might this all shift after the 2020 elections? There are 5,877 (out of 7,383) state legislative seats up for election on November 3. Using the projections produced by election forecasters CNalysis, there are six state legislative chambers currently held by Republicans that have the potential to flip to Democrats next year. The most likely is the Minnesota Senate, which CNalysis rates as Tilt Democratic. Furthermore, both the Senate and House in Arizona, the Iowa House, and the Michigan House are all currently rated as “Toss-Up.” Finally, the Pennsylvania House and North Carolina House are rated as “Lean Republican” and “Tilt Republican,” respectively.
When a political party holds a supermajority of seats in a state legislature, that supermajority has the power to override gubernatorial vetoes as well as approve special measures (e.g., sending constitutional amendments to the voters) that require passage beyond a simple majority. Currently, of the 99 state legislative chambers, Republicans hold supermajorities in 30 chambers and Democrats hold supermajorities in 20 chambers. The remaining 49 chambers have one political party with a simple majority that cannot override the governor's veto of its legislation.
Supermajorities are particularly important when the sitting governor is of the opposite political party than the supermajority because it can effectively neutralize the governor’s veto power over the legislative branch. More likely, a supermajority and sitting governor may be of the same political party, but a legislature with veto override powers can push a governor of the same party to more extreme political stances than that governor might have taken on their own.
The 2020 state elections could see parties lose supermajorities in some state legislatures and parties gain supermajorities in others. Notably, according to projections produced by election forecasters CNalysis, Republicans could lose supermajorities in the Arkansas House (Tilt Republican Keep) and Missouri Senate (Likely Republican Keep), while Democrats could lose supermajorities in the Nevada House (Tilt Democratic Keep) and the Oregon House (Lean Democratic Keep) and Senate (Tilt Democratic Lose). On the other hand, Democrats could gain a supermajority in the Delaware Senate (Likely Democratic Gain), New Mexico House (Toss-Up Democratic Gain), and New York Senate (Toss-Up Democratic Gain), while Republicans are largely playing defense on their 30 state legislative chamber supermajorities (with no significant supermajority gain opportunities).
A political party holds a “trifecta” in a state when it controls both state legislative chambers as well as the governor’s office. Currently, Republicans have trifectas in 21 states, Democrats hold 15 state trifectas, and the remaining 14 states are under split control. When one party controls both the legislature and governor’s mansion in a state, that party has a clear path to pass preferred public policies without any major roadblocks from the opposition party.
On November 3, both parties will have opportunities to gain and break up political trifectas. If Democrats can win control of the Iowa House (“Toss-Up”) or either chamber in Arizona (both “Toss-Ups”), they will eliminate Republican trifectas in those states. Democrats also have a good chance of gaining a trifecta in Minnesota if they flip the Senate (“Tilt Democratic”). Republicans have a chance to add to their trifecta lead by winning the governors races in Montana (“Toss-Up”) or North Carolina (“Lean Democrat”).
In 32 states, voters will be asked not only to submit their preferences for individuals running to represent them, but they’ll be asked to decide the fate of new laws or constitutional amendments directly. This form of direct democracy is often referred to universally as ballot measures.
Currently, 32 states have certified a total of 114 statewide ballot measures for the November 3 ballot. Mississippi will decide on a new state flag. Voters in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota will decide whether to legalize marijuana for certain uses. Californians alone will see 12 statewide measures on their ballot (in addition to potential local measures), including high-profile measures to exclude rideshare drivers from a recent law (CA AB 5) that would classify them as employees and a measure that would expand the protections of the nation’s first major consumer privacy law.
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