State Legislatures See Big Changes

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Republicans now control a majority of the country's governors' seats and state legislatures. This will have an enormous impact in the redrawing of congressional districts. NPR's Michele Norris talks to Tim Storey, elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, about the big changes in numerous state legislatures throughout the country.


The conservative electoral wave also produced big wins for Republicans in state houses across the country. That could pose long-term challenges for Democrats. Newly-elected Republican governors and legislators will have the upper hand in redrawing voting districts. Redistricting is a complicated process and it often produces some strange looking districts.

If you look at a legislative map and wonder why a voting district has a single tentacle that reaches 50 miles in one direction or stretches across the state in several directions like a sprawling puddle of spilled milk, it's often because the districts were drawn up based more on politics than geography. It's called gerrymandering.

For more on the political shifts at the state house level, we turn to Tim Storey. He's an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TIM STOREY (Elections Analyst, National Conference of State Legislatures): Happy to be with you.

NORRIS: First, could you give us a sense of how this Republican wave had an impact on state legislatures and governorships?

Mr. STOREY: It really was an historic win in terms of numbers of seats that Republicans picked up in state legislatures. They also had some key victories in key governor's races like in Pennsylvania and Ohio that are going to position them very well for redistricting. And at the end of the day, there are now more Republican state legislators than there have been since 1928.

NORRIS: What will all this mean as states begin their once in a decade process of remapping those congressional districts?

Mr. STOREY: Next year's the redistricting year. The Census Bureau will deliver the data to the states sometime in early February and March, depending on the state. And then they start drawing lines and it can be a very political process.

NORRIS: So, how is it that we wind up with some of these strange districts? The one I described looked like this sort of growing puddle of spilled milk, or almost like a spider reaching out in several directions all at once.

Mr. STOREY: Yeah. There are a number of legal requirements that sort of govern how states can do redistricting. Certainly complying with the Voting Rights Act is very important. And then states also have to be attentive to traditional districting principles. Things like drawing districts that are relatively compact, districts that are contiguous.

So states are trying to comply with all these criteria while at the same time they're certainly looking for partisan gain. Some of the really unusually shaped districts you see are oftentimes voting rights districts that has to do with minority population and where those populations are.

For example, the second district of Arizona for the U.S. House stretches from Maricopa County in the southern part of Arizona all the way up the western part of the state. And then the district goes through the Grand Canyon. And it's only the water in the Grand Canyon, literally the Colorado River. So if you're on the river, you're in Arizona congressional district two. If you pull to the shore to have lunch in the Grand Canyon on your rafting trip, you're in Arizona congressional district 1.

It looks terrible to look at it on a map, but that district was drawn partly because of concerns between the Hopi tribe and the Navajo tribe in Arizona. And everyone agreed to it.

NORRIS: I'm wondering if this will have the biggest impact in states that might lose congressional seats based on those new census numbers.

Mr. STOREY: The battle is particularly intense in the states that are either losing a seat in the U.S. House or even gaining seats in the U.S. House. And in those states, essentially, it's musical chairs. Some district's going to go away, which usually means some incumbent has no district to run in and they have to run a new district and so they're going to fight tooth and claw to make sure that doesn't happen.

NORRIS: You know, so much of the national coverage on the midterm elections focused on Republican gains in the House and the rise of the Tea Party candidates. In some cases, did the national media bury the lead? Is the real story here that the GOP might control the political landscape across the country for years to come, based on these state house gains?

Mr. STOREY: Well, the politics of redistricting will ripple throughout the rest of the decade. And as it stands today, the Republicans have almost unilateral authority to redraw U.S. House districts in states where they would total about 190 U.S. House seats that are sort of controlled by a Republican state.

The equivalent number for Democrats is only about 70 is their best case scenario. So the Republican gains at the state level were, you know, really were historic. And they're in their best position for redistricting than, really, they've ever been in since we started doing redistricting the way we do it today.

NORRIS: Tim Storey, thank you very much.

Mr. STOREY: A real pleasure, thank you.

NORRIS: Tim Storey is an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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