Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Redistricting: Tracking state elections and legislative composition

The 2018 “blue wave” midterms saw increased Democratic representation in many state legislatures, including Washington State’s. Put in a broader context, though, some gains for Democrats at the state level don’t look quite as dramatic.

One way to contextualize the gains is to look at a state’s overall party preference. Data Analyst David Kaplan compiled those numbers before the 2018 elections, based on statewide votes in the last two presidential elections. He presented it next to the party makeup of state legislatures for a project he called Houses of Power.

Kaplan’s project displayed a common occurrence: significant discrepancies between the percentage of voters in a state that prefer a party and that party’s representation in the state’s legislature. He references the “hallmarks of gerrymandering” in acknowledging that phenomenon.

Before the midterms in Washington State, for instance, the state House was made up of 51 percent Democratic members, while 58 percent of Washington voters voted for the Democrat in recent presidential elections.

This was a 7-percent gap between the statewide preference and actual representation in the House of Representatives. In other words, the Democratic voice in the House was 7 points less than the Democratic statewide vote.

Image: Houses of Power, David Kaplan

Put differently, until the recent midterms, the Democratic representation in the House was far below the level of Democratic support among statewide voters.

Washington is hardly unique in that regard.

The state-preferred party was under-represented by at least 2 percent in 13 states. In ten of those states, Democrats were the under-represented party. In four states that had a slight preference for a Democratic candidate for president — New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan — Democrats didn’t have control of the state House at all.

On the flip side: The state-preferred party was over-represented by at least 2 percent in 32 states. In 22 of those states, Republicans were the over-represented party.

The two most extreme examples were 22-percent over-representation of the preferred party — in favor of Democrats in Hawaii, in favor of Republicans in South Dakota.

Actual party makeup of the state House was within 2 percent of the state party preference in three states: Montana, Maryland, and New Mexico.

That math leaves out two states: Pennsylvania and Florida. Both don’t have a party preference, by Kaplan’s measure. And both states’ Houses had strong Republican majorities.

With Kaplan’s numbers and post-2018 state House partisan composition (thanks to the National Conference of State Legislatures) for context, what looked like big Democratic gains in 2018 for some states, including Washington, merely closed the gap between actual representation and the state’s preference.

The “blue wave” midterms brought the Washington House to 58 percent Democrats — pretty much exactly the percentage of Washington voters who prefer a Democrat for president.

From this angle, Democrats in the Washington State House went from under-represented by 7 points to evenly represented compared to their statewide presidential votes.

So, the gains Democrats made can feel different, state-by-state.

The House in Texas similarly approached voter preference in 2018, albeit from the other direction. In recent presidential elections, 56 percent of Texas voters have voted Republican, while 63 percent of the state’s House was red. Post-2018 midterms, the Texas House is 55 percent Republican — just about even with the statewide preference.

Texas is often regarded for a legislative map that is gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. Washington State is not. Yet, following the “blue wave” election of 2018, both states’ Houses of Representatives moved from over-weighted toward Republicans to a partisan split that evenly matched the statewide vote.

In five of the 10 states where Democrats were under-represented, the “blue wave” went beyond closing the gap, taking the Democratic party from under-representation to over-representation of statewide preference. In the most extreme example, Democrats in New Hampshire went from being under-represented by 7 percent to being over-represented by 8 percent.

But in some states with the Democratic Party under-represented, the midterms didn’t do much at all to close the gap.

In Wisconsin, for example, 51 percent of voters have preferred the Democratic candidates in recent presidential elections. Dems were under-represented by 16 percent in the pre-midterm Republican-controlled assembly. They’re still under-represented by 16 percent.

In Vermont, a 5-percent under-representation for Democrats narrowed to a 3-percent under-representation. In Michigan, 9 percent narrowed to 4 percent.

In Ohio, 53 percent of voters have recently gone for Republican presidential candidates. The pre-2018 House was 67 percent Republican — a 14-percent gap. Now, the gap is 9 percent, with Rs controlling 62 percent of the House.

So far, these are examples favoring Republicans, which is notable considering the narrative around the “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms.  

In Rhode Island, though, Republicans were under-represented by 15 percent in the pre-2018 House. Democrats expanded their supermajority in 2018 and increased the representation gap to 18 percent.

Maryland’s House representation was on-par with its statewide vote before the midterms. Now there’s a 6-percent gap in favor of Democrats.

Hawaii maintained its 90-percent Democrat majority in its House, thereby maintaining its 22-percent gap.

In all, Kaplan’s data, especially with the added context of the 2018 midterms, demonstrates a common inconsistency in representation across the country.

With all this in mind (and knowing that these measures aren’t perfect), if the goal is for state legislatures to represent their constituents’ preferences, something seems to be missing.

Perhaps Kaplan said it best in his explanation of the project:

“Overall, the Houses of Power visualization underscores what voters have long felt: In many ways, our elections don’t work well for Americans of either major party — and perhaps especially for voters who prefer neither party.”


This article is part of a series titled “Redistricting Washington State: How the lines are drawn,” in which we explore the history, implications, and details of the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. Read more about the series here.