Updated 5/25/18 7:00 p.m. | More than three-fifths of governors deciding new district lines in the 2020 cycle will be elected this year, a new study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found.
One-third of state senators country-wide and all Alabama lawmakers will elected during the 2018 midterms will still be in office during the next redistricting cycle, the state government policy research group found. While redistricting seems a long way away, experts say the governorship and state races mean parties should be focusing on this year’s midterms.
“People keep saying we’ll know more by 2020, we need to look ahead to 2020,” said Justin Levitt, a professor and gerrymandering researcher at Loyola Law School. “But people need to make sure they aren’t missing the election happening right now.”
After the 2020 census, every state will be drawing up new district lines meant to reflect changes in population and make sure districts are best divided to get voters’ interests represented. However, a majority of districts are drawn and approved by state legislatures and governors and often shade toward the controlling party. (The Supreme Court will decide two partisan gerrymandering cases this June, looking at districts in Maryland and Wisconsin.)
State lawmakers, governors and independent commissions have full control over the future of their districts. While federal legislators have no direct control over the future makeup of districts, they will be voted in based on the lines drawn.
The last redistricting cycle happened in 2011, after Republicans surged into control of the federal legislature and many state governments during the 2010 midterms. Democrats say taking control of the maps gave Republicans a huge advantage throughout the 2010s. Republicans won a 33-seat majority in the House despite winning fewer than half of all votes in 2012, according to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Republicans have plans to hold on to the gains they made in 2010. The Republican State Leadership Committee launched REDMAP 2020 in 2015 with the goal of raising $125 million to defend conservative legislative majorities in state capitals.
Former Rep. Steve Israel has been on the road for the Democratic Governors Association in the past few months talking about the importance of taking back state governorships. Speaking from his experience as the two-time chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he told Democrats to keep their eyes on redistricting in 2020, which means winning races in 2018.
“When I explain to them that we lost 1,000 Democratic local officials, including governors between 2008 and 2012, and they say, ‘How did that happen?’ I say, ‘Well, you guys let it happen. You guys let it happen. Don’t let it happen again,’” Israel said in March.
If you look only at 2020, you’re missing out on a lot of major state races, research experts like Levitt said.
“There are a ton of state legislative seats that are up this fall where the people in those seats will be making the decisions,” Levitt said. “And even if they’re not four-year seats, many of the open seats now will have incumbents during the 2020 cycle.”
Because each state legislature’s election operates under its own rules, each state has a different time frame for who will be in power in the next few years. In three states — Alabama, Maryland and Michigan — all the senators who win in 2018 will be in control of the next redistricting cycle.
Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia have elections coming up in 2019 for their state House and Senate seats. In 22 states, state senators serve staggered four-year terms: About half of the senators are up for election in 2018 and will be on board for redistricting, with the other half up for election in 2020.
Seven states have independent commissions that draw district maps.
While many early indicators predict a “blue wave” hitting the 2018 midterms, the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law institute, found Democrats would have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 percentage points to flip the House because of partisan-drawn maps.
Despite any possible map-drawn Republican advantage, the potential for a Democratic backlash after President Donald Trump’s election has put conservatives on edge. Uncertainty over who will control state capitals has put pressure on legislators to make advances toward limiting partisan gerrymandering, Brennan Center senior counsel Michael Li said.
“Everyone’s response to gerrymandering is that it’s bad, even if they may not know what the right solution is,” Li said. “No one wants to be the one left out if things shift out of their control.”
Redistricting following the 2020 census could create even more precise and long-lasting partisan advantages by using mapping technology to draw district boundaries, the Brennan Center reported.
But just because one party or another prevails in 2020 doesn’t mean that’s the end of the line for people advocating fair redistricting practices. States, advocacy groups, and others are doing continuous work on redistricting through the courts, Levitt said. This means rules and district lines are liable to change before the next decade marker.
“People think redistricting happens once every 10 years and stops,” Levitt said. “That isn’t true. There are always new cases and new information changing what we’re doing.”
Correction, 12:30 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Republicans won a 33-seat majority in the House despite winning fewer than half of all votes. It was 2012.
Correction, 5/25/18 at 9:57 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated one of the states for which the Supreme Court is deciding a partisan gerrymandering case. The states are Wisconsin and Maryland.