Every state legislative district and congressional district will be redrawn next year based on the 2020 census. In most states, the winners of state legislative elections will be in the driver’s seat for redrawing their states’ maps — which will, in turn, determine who controls the next 10 years on voting rights, gun safety, police accountability, Covid-19 recovery and so much more.
Consider this tale of two states that illustrates the power of gerrymandering and the real-life consequences of rigged maps that impede the people’s will — but also provides a call to action and hope about what can be accomplished when maps are fair and the people’s will is fulfilled.
First, the caution. In 2018, Wisconsin voters delivered a clear message
: They re-elected a Democrat to the US Senate, replaced incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker with a Democrat, and swept the other statewide offices, even flipping the attorney general
and treasurer’s office
from red to blue.
Wisconsin voters also favored Democratic candidates over Republicans for the state Assembly by more than 200,000 votes
. But the state’s wildly gerrymandered map, engineered by Republicans to retain control even during such a big Democratic wave, held strong: The GOP won just 46% of the vote, but nevertheless retained 64% of the seats
. Democrats gained a single seat.
Wisconsin’s state legislature, controlled by politicians insulated from the voters they are supposed to represent, has met the challenges of today with indifference to their constituents’ policy priorities and even their health. As Covid-19 raged across Wisconsin in April, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called a special session, asking the legislature to postpone a statewide election until mid-May and to conduct all voting by mail. The assembly took 17 seconds
to adjourn without any action.
Last November, when Evers ordered a special session on expanding background checks for guns
— a measure supported by 80%
of Wisconsin residents, according to a Marquette University Law School poll — both chambers convened, then immediately adjourned without debate. When Evers called a special session in August on police reform
after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times while his back was to them, the GOP-controlled legislature disdainfully convened for all of 30 seconds
Now, for the hope. Virginia’s legislative action in 2020 stands in sharp contrast to the stiff-arm by Wisconsin’s gerrymandered legislature. It demonstrates how leaders can respond to crises with broadly popular action when the courts declare a rigged map unconstitutional and replace it with one that’s fair. In 2019, after the Supreme Court let stand a federal court decision
that forced several districts in Virginia’s legislature to be redrawn because of illegal racial gerrymandering, the map that had delivered GOP majorities despite hundreds of thousands of fewer votes was redrawn by a neutral special master. That fall, when Democrats won more votes, it finally resulted in a majority of seats
The legislature also passed a raft of Covid-19 relief including expanding telehealth
, prohibiting price gouging
, bolstering tenants’ rights
and ensuring that kids continue to get free breakfast and lunch at school.
The contrast between the actions of Wisconsin’s and Virginia’s legislatures could not be clearer. This is why maps matter, and why state legislatures matter.
Those maps, and those state legislatures, are now on the ballot again. Redistricting takes place every 10 years, after the census, so it’s coming up next year. While most of the national attention is directed at the race for the White House and control of the US Senate, much quieter races for control of state legislative chambers are every bit as important for our everyday lives.
The legislatures elected this fall will have outsized importance on shaping the next decade in states like Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.
What’s at stake is nothing less than what representative democracy looks like in battleground states: Whether one party will have the ability to hold durable legislative majorities for another decade even with a minority of votes, to enact an extreme policy agenda most voters oppose, and to limit voting rights in states that control more than 100 Electoral College votes.
Republicans dominated this process after the 2010 elections
and weaponized redistricting into a blunt partisan weapon
. The echoes of 2010’s Republican state legislative triumph are still felt today: Before Virginia flipped blue last year, nearly 60 million Americans
lived in a state where one or both chambers of the state legislature is controlled by the party that won fewer votes in 2018, according to a USC Schwarzenegger Institute study.
If you guessed that Democrats won more votes in all of those states yet Republicans maintained control anyway, you would be correct.
Many of us see President Donald Trump’s contempt for democracy and worry about a further entrenchment of minority rule if he wins a second term. But the much more consequential races for determining what our nation is to look like for the next decade, even the next generation, are these elections in state legislatures. And with conservatives likely to hold a 6-3 majority on the US Supreme Court over this decade, or longer, these state legislatures become a crucial last line of defense for health care, voting rights, reproductive rights, and much more.
The next president, after all, will serve until 2024. But voters won’t get another crack at fairer maps until 2031. If we allow the opportunity to build progressive power in states to pass this November, our current state of minority rule will deepen and this nation will look much different by then.