Most of the attention on the 2020 election is focused on who will sit in the White House for the next four years. But the 2020 election could also help decide who controls the House of Representatives for the next decade.
This is the last election before data from the census is released, so whoever emerges from this year holding power on the state level will have the power to redraw their state’s congressional maps — and maybe even give their side an unfair advantage in future elections. (Although this is not true everywhere, as some states have independent or bipartisan commissions draw their maps.)
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Gerrymandering, or the act of purposefully drawing a map to advantage one political party or group, has a long history in this country — and politicians of all persuasions have been guilty of it. But the red wave election of 2010 upped the ante by giving Republicans lopsided control of the 2011 redistricting process. Thanks in large part to the 21 state legislatures and six governorships they picked up, Republicans were able to draw 55 percent of congressional districts, while Democrats drew just 10 percent.
As a result, in both 2012 and 2016, the House map was more biased toward Republicans than it had been at any point since the 1970s. Republicans even won 33 more House seats than Democrats in the 2012 election despite Democrats winning the House popular vote by 1.3 percentage points. And even as courts ruled some states’ maps unconstitutional and Democrats were able to flip the House in 2018, the median seat remained 4.4 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole.
Going into the 2020 elections, Republicans still have the inside track over Democrats in the 2021 redistricting process. We determined this by using Election Data Services estimates of how many congressional districts each state will have after the 2020 census, looking at which party currently controls the levers of redistricting in those states and assessing (based on partisanship data, expert opinions and local media reports) whether the 2020 elections could change that.
Our analysis found that 117 congressional districts (27 percent of the entire House) are likely to be drawn by Republicans, while 47 (11 percent) are likely to be drawn by Democrats. Another 132 (30 percent) will be drawn by independent commissions or by both Republicans and Democrats working together. And seven districts (2 percent) are at-large districts that cover their entire state (thus, there are no lines to draw).
That leaves 10 states worth 132 congressional districts (30 percent of the House) where control of redistricting is up for grabs in the current election. However, not all of the redistricting-relevant elections in these states are winnable by both parties; in some, the best one party can hope for is simply to block the other from gaining full control.
For example, Republicans could win the ability to draw 71 new districts without Democratic input — but the best they can do with the remaining 61 is to ensure they have a seat at the table so they can force Democrats to compromise. Still, under this best-case scenario for Republicans, they would have redistricting control over 188 seats in total (43 percent) — almost as many as after 2010.
But with the possibility of another blue wave election on the horizon, Democrats can probably prevent that from happening. In the best-case Democratic scenario, the party would gain control over drawing 77 more seats and would share redistricting control over the other 55 with Republicans. That would give them redistricting control over 124 seats in total (29 percent) — slightly more than Republicans.
Of course, the final redistricting landscape will probably be somewhere in between these two extremes. To see which party will have the eventual advantage — and how big that advantage will be — here are the states and elections to watch.
- Without question, Texas is the biggest redistricting prize up for grabs this year; accounting for population growth, it is expected to have 39 congressional districts next decade. While Republicans currently control all three stakeholders in the congressional redistricting process — the state Senate, state House and governorship — the state House is competitive this year. Democrats need a net gain of just nine seats to take control of the chamber — and there are 22 districts that the party thinks it can flip, including nine that Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried in 2018. If Democrats flip the House, they would gain the ability to block GOP-proposed maps, forcing either Republicans to compromise or a court to draw the lines.
- New York is projected to have 26 House seats next decade, but it has relatively new and complex redistricting rules under which a bipartisan commission proposes maps, but the state legislature and governor decide whether to approve them. However, if they reject the commission’s maps twice, the legislature can effectively draw its own. Only one wrinkle: If the same party controls both chambers of the legislature (as Democrats currently do), a two-thirds majority is required to pass a new congressional map. That means Democrats need to win a supermajority in the state Senate (they already have one in the state Assembly) in 2020 if they want to be able to impose a map without any Republican votes. And with 10 Republican senators retiring, including many from competitive seats, Democrats have a good chance of picking up the two additional seats they need.
- In Pennsylvania (likely home to 17 congressional districts), Democrats are guaranteed a seat at the table in redistricting thanks to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who was reelected in 2018. If they flip both the state Senate and state House this year, they could draw congressional lines however they want. However, Democrats would need a net gain of nine seats to take the state House (despite having plenty of vulnerable members of their own) and sweep every competitive district in the Senate. So the most likely outcome may be that Wolf will share redistricting power with Republican legislators.
- North Carolina’s House and Senate will draw the state’s projected 14 congressional districts; the governor doesn’t get a say. Both chambers are competitive in this year’s elections, meaning either party could have full control of redistricting (divided control is very possible as well). Right now Republicans have majorities in both chambers, but Democrats could change that by flipping five seats in the Senate and/or six seats in the House.
- By contrast, the fate of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts will be decided by Amendment #1, a ballot measure to reform redistricting. (Control of state government in Virginia is decided in odd years and so isn’t in play this year.) Amendment #1 would set up a bipartisan commission of state legislators and ordinary citizens to draw Virginia’s new congressional map. The state legislature would still have to approve it, but if they don’t, the state Supreme Court would create its own map. Polling so far shows that Amendment #1 will probably pass, but if not, Virginia’s Democratic-controlled state government would draw the lines.
- Republicans currently control all three redistricting entities — the state Senate, state House and governorship — in Missouri, worth eight congressional seats. But Democrats have an outside shot at breaking up that monopoly if two things go right for them. First, Democrat Nicole Galloway would need to overcome her polling deficit to defeat Republican Gov. Mike Parson. Then, Democrats would also have to break up the Republican supermajority in the state Senate, which they could do by flipping two seats — perhaps vulnerable Senate districts 15 and 19. Otherwise, Republicans could simply override Galloway’s veto of their maps.
- The power to draw Minnesota’s projected seven congressional districts is currently divided: Democrats control the governorship and state House, while Republicans control the state Senate. The question of redistricting control will boil down to whether Democrats can flip the state Senate (the governor isn’t up for reelection this year). Democrats have six viable pickup opportunities but only need to net two seats to attain a majority, giving them a good shot of drawing the maps alone next year.
- Iowa will use a unique process to redraw its four House districts. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draws a map, and the legislature gives it an up-or-down vote. If the legislature rejects two of the LSA’s maps, though, they can amend the third or draw their own, putting the ultimate power in politicians’ hands. Right now, that means in Republican hands — the GOP controls the state Senate, state House and governorship. However, Democrats need to net only four seats to take control of the state House, which would probably make it more likely that one of the LSA’s maps is accepted.
- At first glance, control of redrawing Kansas’s four congressional districts appears to be split between Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican legislature. However, the GOP currently has veto-proof majorities in both the state Senate and state House, meaning they could enact a new map without Kelly’s input. Those supermajorities are very much at risk in the 2020 elections, though. If Democrats net three Senate seats or even just one House seat this year, they’ll ensure a new map can only pass if Democrats approve.
- Finally, only two congressional districts are at stake in New Hampshire, but almost every possible scenario is on the table. All three redistricting stakeholders (the state Senate, state House and governorship) are on the ballot, and all three are competitive. If polling showing Republicans close to flipping both chambers of the legislature is correct, Republicans could gain total control of redistricting. If Democrats pull an upset and defeat Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, they would. However, the status quo (shared control between Sununu and a Democratic legislature) may be the most likely outcome.