What Just Happened in the States
As the picture is becoming clear enough to understand the 2021 landscape in state legislatures, here are key takeaways as of November 6, 2020.
- In November 2020, nearly 6,000 of the nation’s 7,383 state legislative seats were up for election.
- Come January 2021, the partisan control of state legislatures will look nearly identical to how they looked in January 2019: of the 98 chambers that have partisan control, 59 are held by Republicans, 37 by Democrats (as of this writing, the Arizona Senate and House remain in flux; Nebraska is a unicameral, nonpartisan chamber).
- The 2020 elections provided only minimal changes to the makeups of state legislatures on a chamber-wide level, with Democrats losing control in NH, though possible Democratic pickups in Arizona remain.
- Factoring in governors, Republicans hold 22 trifectas (having picked up the MT governor’s mansion), Democrats hold 15, and 10 states have divided state governments; we await final election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania (Nebraska excepted from the count due to its nonpartisan unicameral chamber)
- Key: Gray: final results not yet known; Blue/red stripe: split chamber; Red stripe: results not final, but likely R.
Communities of color–in AZ, NV, GA, PA, WI, and MI–beat back Donald Trump’s fascism and division federally, and yet, structural barriers kept the partisan control of state legislatures relatively unchanged.
- Overwhelmingly, Black (87%), Indigenous (58%), Latinx (66%), and Asian Pacific Islander (63%) communities voted against Donald Trump, while a majority of white voters (57%) continued to support Trump at rates comparable to 2016. The high rate of support and participation from BIPOC communities is the decisive factor in the Presidential race battleground states.
- The strategy to build and invest in year-round organizing that centers multi-racial community power paid off huge federal electoral dividends in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In each of these states, the work has been ongoing for years and should be the organizing blueprint for every state in the country. The boom and bust cycle of election spending does not carry the same type of lasting impact and the progressive movement should not ignore this lesson.
- Despite the federal election win, gerrymandering has resulted in a relatively unchanged map of partisan control within state legislatures. For example, in Wisconsin, Joe Biden won 49.4% of the vote as of November 5th, but Republicans retained 61% of all state legislative seats.
- With the exception of New Hampshire, which swung to a Republican trifecta, and Montana, which flipped a governor, the partisan control of states has remained the same so far. And the chances are slim that partisan control will ultimately change the in states still finalizing results.
- In Democratic-controlled legislative chambers, we saw general increases in their ranks, with Democrats gaining 31 new seats. The Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts legislatures became “more blue,” with Democrats claiming nine, six, and three new seats, respectively.
- In Republican-controlled legislative chambers, we saw significant increases in their ranks, with Republicans gaining 186 new seats. The New Hampshire, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Montana legislatures become “more red,” with Republicans claiming 61, 21, 15, and 11 new seats, respectively.
- With redistricting around the corner, we must focus on removing structural barriers that continue to consolidate the power of the wealthy, corporations, and white supremacy to the detriment of everyone in this country.
Voters of all political persuasions–Black, white, and brown alike–overwhelmingly support progressive public policy options, mostly through direct democracy in the ballot measure process. The space between public support for a shared progressive vision and the makeup of our legislative bodies is occupied by structural decisions on how we organize our elections.
- We have many reasons to celebrate the leadership of our close partner, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), to protect and secure progressive wins all across the country (see here for their statement on ballot measure results).
- Alabama voters removed racist language from their state constitution.
- In California, voters restored voting rights to individuals serving parole for felony convictions.
- In Colorado, voters rejected a ban on later abortion–in even higher numbers than they voted for Joe Biden–again affirming broad bipartisan support for abortion access.
- Also in Colorado, voters approved a new national standard for paid family and medical leave, which will begin in 2024.
- In Florida, almost 61% of voters approved raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2026.
- In Utah and Nebraska, voters stripped the “slavery as a punishment” clause from their state constitutions.
- Marijuana is decriminalized, legalized, and/or taxed in five states (Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota).
- The most immediate challenge facing all state legislatures next year will be swelling budget deficits due to the pandemic and the recession, as funding underpins all state public policy. Coordination between state and federal actors will be essential to preventing ongoing harm to people in all corners of the country.
- During the presidential transition, SiX will work closely with the new administration to ensure that state legislators help to shape the federal package of reforms that will need to move quickly in 2021.
- At the same time, state legislators face an extreme risk across the progressive movement–that all hopes are laid at the feet of the new President without an acknowledgment that state legislatures have significant power to shape the political terrain for generations to come.
- This was a grave error in 2010 when conservatives consolidated their power in state legislatures under the Obama presidency, and similar backlash should be anticipated and actively mitigated in the days and months to come.
The pipeline of public leadership is starting to look more like America.
- Former GA State Senator Nikema Williams, a champion in SiX’s Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council (RFLC), won her Congressional race, replacing civil rights giant Hon. John Lewis.
- Oklahoma elected the country’s first openly nonbinary state legislator, Mauree Turner– and they are a Muslim millennial!
- In New Mexico, there is now a 37-33 majority of women in the House.
- Five newly elected state legislators will become the first Muslim legislators in their states: Mauree Turner in Oklahoma, Madinah Wilson-Anton in Delaware, Iman Jodeh in Colorado, Samba Baldeh in Wisconsin, and Christopher Benjamin in Florida.
- LGBTQIA wins: In Deleware, Sarah McBride became the first transgender person elected to a state Senate. Two other Democrats became the first openly transgender people to win seats in their states’ Houses: Taylor Small in Vermont and Stephanie Byers in Kansas. Tenessee elected its first openly gay and openly bisexual legislators, Eddie Mannis and Torrey Harris respectively.
- In WA state, the number of Black women legislators tripled from the previous year.
- We still have to fight to continue the trend. We can never achieve justice if our decision-makers are older, whiter, and richer, than the people they represent–or if only 29% of state legislators who hold office are women and 78% are white. Our state systems are designed to incentivize certain people to hold state elected office: in numerous states, legislators are part-time, paid very little if at all, and required to drop everything else for several months each year to be fully available for their legislative sessions. This has led to state legislatures being disproportionately composed of retirees, independently wealthy people, and those whose educational and career privileges allow them to hit pause on their careers for up to several months per year without repercussions.
- Legislators must fight better and differently in every legislative context. SiX is designed exactly for this work.
- Over the last year, SiX has redesigned its operating model to provide customized support to legislators in all 50 states, which includes more training offerings for new legislators, virtual legislator convenings, robust issue briefings and policy education, and deeper collaboration with progressive movement actors–from the states outward.
- Ultimately, this means that legislators fight better for the causes important to the progressive community by advancing bold and nuanced progressive public policy at depth and in detail. And our work ensures that legislators fight differently by employing more effective tactics to win equitable public policy that improves people’s lives.
- Notably, SiX’s five-year strategic plan centers on race equity as a cornerstone of our strategy. The electoral results are clear: state legislators–and the country at large–need to publicly and aggressively contend with race and racism, or the chasm will continue to grow larger. We are at the precipice of transformation as a country–either toward reconciliation, truth, and solidarity or towards deeper division. We know where we want to go at this moment.
We know that bold champions can make a difference in every legislative context–majorities, minorities, and split governance states– and our champions need resources and support to make transformative change.
The road ahead isn’t easy, but the work to transform this country is a long arc. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and are so grateful to be in this generational struggle.