State legislative races attract little or no national attention on a typical Election Day. But toward the end of each decade, they rise to national prominence. That’s when voters, in the vast majority of states, elect those who will redraw boundaries for congressional districts.
This is one of those years. Voters will decide on more than 6,000 state House and Senate seats nationwide Nov. 6, determining which parties control their state legislatures for the next two or four years. Whichever party holds the majority in each state after the 2020 census results are finalized will therefore control that state’s maps through 2032.
Those who draw the districts have a tremendous impact on which party will hold the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. So national political groups and even out-of-state donors are trying to sway this year’s state races that will shape the political landscape for the whole country.
The nuts and bolts of redistricting vary by state, but elected legislators run the process in 37 states. The seven states with small enough populations to have only one U.S. House seat — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming — don’t need to worry about the congressional mapping.
Governors also hold veto power over legislatures’ congressional maps in 35 states, and attorneys general help draw the congressional lines in two states — Mississippi and Texas — adding to the list of races targeted in the fight over partisan redistricting.
Several states, though, hand their redistricting responsibilities to independent commissions such as citizen councils or demographers. A growing movement is calling for more of those commissions nationwide to remove partisan line-drawing from the political arsenal. And voters in some states this fall will be asked to weigh in.
The court system is also playing a role, with even the U.S. Supreme Court taking on the issue.
A decade ago voters did not respond to redistricting as a campaign issue, but this time they are getting involved, according to Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan center that advocates for voting rights.
“The thing about redistricting is that there’s a lot at stake,” Li said. “There certainly is just an incredible level of energy around this issue.”