Under the glare of the national census, 2020 will be a year of decision for the states.
Most states will choose legislatures that in 2021 will redistrict congressional and legislative seats on the basis of the census. Some 6,000 of the nation’s 7,383 state legislators will be elected.
Eight governors, who in many states play a role in redistricting, also will be elected in 2020.
“This is the Big Kahuna of elections for redistricting” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), who observed that next year’s state elections could determine the partisan composition of the U.S. House of Representatives and most state legislatures for a decade.
The elections come at a time of sharpening partisan division at state and national levels. Unified control has enabled both parties to advance their objectives in the states on issues blocked in Congress, where Republicans hold the Senate while Democrats control the House.
Congress declined to act on gun control despite repeated mass shootings. But several Democratic states tightened gun laws in 2019 even as some Republican states were loosening gun restrictions.
It’s the opposite with abortion, on which nine Republican states have imposed severe restrictions. Meanwhile, six Democratic states passed laws reaffirming abortion rights.
Democrats and Republicans also hold divergent views on health care, but some states have departed from the partisan script.
The Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, allowed states to expand Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for the poor, to those whose income is 138 percent above the poverty line. Most Democratic states expanded immediately and were joined by seven Republican-controlled states.
Officially, 36 states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid. However, this list includes three states — Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — where voters in 2018 approved expansion but legislatures have balked at full implementation.
This year’s Medicaid battleground has been over work requirements, requested by 16 Republican states and approved by federal authorities for nine of them.
So far, the battle has not gone well for Republicans. Federal courts overturned work rules in Arkansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire. Only Indiana is presently enforcing work requirements for Medicaid recipients, and the Hoosier State also faces a court challenge.
Federalism — the relationship between the federal government and the states — was tested again in 2019, as in every year since Donald J. Trump became president.
Democratic state attorneys general have repeatedly sued the Trump administration on myriad issues. They have filed 96 lawsuits, winning 81 percent of the cases that have been decided, according to Dr. Paul Nolette, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
Within the states, considerable bipartisanship is still evident on education, many transportation issues and on measures to combat the scourge of opioids.
In recent years there’s also been bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform. Several states have reduced sentences for minor crimes, provided treatment for drug users and reformed bail practices.
This trend continued this year in Oklahoma, where voters previously approved a measure to shrink prison rolls by downgrading many felonies to misdemeanors. In 2019 the Republican-controlled legislature made the law retroactive, which on November 4 resulted in the release of 462 inmates, one of the largest mass releases in U.S. history.
It’s a different story in Florida where a legislature also under Republican control has erected barriers to prevent ex-felons from voting.
Florida voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure that would have allowed an estimated 1.5 million former felons to vote. But the Florida Legislature, on a party-line vote, in May passed legislation requiring ex-felons to pay past fines and fees before they can cast a ballot.
A federal judge in October found part of the law was unconstitutional, saying the state could not deny voting rights to ex-felons who cannot afford to pay these charges. Further litigation is likely.
Florida, won by Trump in 2016, is considered a swing state in the 2020 presidential election. The state Senate is also up for grabs, with Democrats optimistic about winning a chamber Republicans control by a 23-17 margin.
In state elections Democrats are still trying to climb out of a deep hole they fell into during the Barack Obama presidency, when Republicans won more than 900 legislative seats and overwhelming control of state legislatures and governorships.
Democrats recovered some ground in the midterm elections of 2018, winning 309 legislative seats and control of the senates in Colorado, Maine and New York, the House in Minnesota and both houses in New Hampshire. They gained seven governorships, unseating Republican incumbents in Illinois and Wisconsin and winning open seats in Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. Republicans won Alaska, previously governed by an independent.
Last month, Democrats captured both houses of the Virginia legislature. Since the state has a Democratic governor, Democrats will be in full control when the state reapportions legislative and congressional seats in 2021.
Heading into next year’s elections, Republicans control the legislature in 29 states and Democrats in 19. Minnesota is the only state with divided control; Democrats hold the House and Republicans the Senate. Unicameral Nebraska is Republican in all but name.
Democrats could flip 10 or 11 legislative chambers next year, Storey said.
Democratic opportunities include the senates in Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and both houses in Arizona, Missouri and North Carolina. Democratic chances in North Carolina have improved after a redistricting ordered by a state court, which found previous district maps had been drawn to favor Republicans
Storey also gives Democrats a chance to win the Iowa senate, which Republicans now control by a 32-18 margin.
Democrats have “the wind at their backs” in the upcoming elections, in which Trump will be an issue even in state races, Storey said. Republicans are counting on a robust U.S. economy, now in an 11th year of growth.
As often occurs in an election year, little major state legislation is expected in 2020.
What states need most next year is a correct count in the census, mandated by the Constitution, which requires “actual Enumeration” of each state’s population every 10 years. The 14th Amendment stipulates that this enumeration should include “the whole number” of persons residing in the country, including non-citizens.
The federal government uses census population counts to distribute an estimated $880 billion a year in more than 300 programs to state and local governments and school districts.
“Every census has question marks, but this census has more question marks than others,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for NCSL.
The biggest question mark is that it is the first census to be conducted primarily on-line. Past federal roll-outs on the Internet — the Affordable Care Act, for instance — have had issues.
If something goes wrong, there may not be enough money to fix the problem. A May report from the Urban Institute said the upcoming census is “seriously underfunded.”
There are also concerns that census data could be vulnerable to a cyber-breach.
Ten percent of Americans are not online, according to the Pew Research Center. These are people who have difficulty using a computer or lack Internet access.
To enroll these 33 million Americans, the Census Bureau will hire a half million temporary workers who will go door to door as in past censuses. But because of the tight labor market, the bureau hasn’t been able to attract sufficient qualified applicants in some areas, according to the Government Accountability Office.
California public officials have expressed concern about a possible significant undercount of Latinos. The Trump administration was thwarted in its attempts to add a citizenship question to the census, but Joseph Chaimie, a demographer who formerly headed the United Nations’ population division, was quoted by The Economist as saying “the damage has already been done.”
Chaimie predicts that many migrants will shun census takers out of fear data they provide will be shared with the U.S. Customs and Enforcement Agency (ICE) even though such action is forbidden by law.
Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau, remains optimistic the bureau can satisfy its critics and says it will be ready for Census Day, April 1.
In congressional testimony Dillingham has vowed to conduct “the best census ever, one that is complete and accurate.”
States, schools and local governments can only hope he’s right.
-- By Lou Cannon
Democrats could pick up more state legislative chambers in 2020
After gaining majority control of legislative chambers in five states - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New York - in 2018 and in Virginia last year, Democrats could flip chambers in eight more states next year, according to Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Republicans currently control the legislatures in 29 states, while Democrats control 19 legislatures, with Minnesota’s Legislature split between the two parties.