The Importance of State Legislatures, Redistricting, and Civil Rights

Single-party control of state legislatures limits accountability and creates an unresponsive government, which is why redistricting reform must be a high priority.

November 8, 2012

State legislatures increasingly hold the keys to the civil rights of America’s citizens. Voting, reproductive freedoms, economic rights, the right to carry firearms, and other individual rights — with the exception of free speech — have more and more been the subject of federal court deference to the states. 

A look at what this means for Americans and how we got here provides much-needed context behind this recent trend — and what we can do about it.

Looking at reproductive rights, in 2011 states passed 92 abortion restrictions, and they passed an additional 39 in the first half of 2012. Wendy Parmet, associate dean at Northeastern University School of Law, noted that “court decisions after Roe have helped open the door to increased regulation in the states.” Julie Rikelman of the Center for Reproductive Rights adds, “Access basically depends entirely on where you live.”

In the realm of voting rights, the Brennan Center noted 180 restrictive voter laws introduced between 2011 and 2012 legislative session. Since 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of voter ID in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, federal courts will often defer to states when burdening voters with new election-related rules. While some federal courts have acted to limit interpretations and inequitable enforcement of state laws, by and large the laws themselves are presumed constitutional.  

Now we are seeing states that are swinging to single-party legislative control. With November’s election, both chambers of the state legislatures in Maine, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, and Arkansas are under single party control. Now, only three state legislatures have two chambers dominated by two different parties: Iowa, Kentucky, and New Hampshire. The remaining 47 states are under single-party control or have a unicameral legislature. Additionally, there are 32 states with single-party control over the legislative and executive branches — state house, senate, and governor.   

What does this mean for voters and citizens around the country?

When considering how redistricting often operates to insulate candidates from true accountability by the electorate, this level of single-party control presents challenges for civil rights advocates and citizens. For example, Jim Slagle, who managed the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting in 2011, in commenting on the failed Ohio redistricting amendment described election 2012 this way: “We spent millions on election campaigns, had a charade of voters going to the polls, yet in 131 out [of] 133 Congress, State Senate, and Ohio House elections, all we need to do was look at the political indexes we identified last fall when the lines were drawn.”

Single-party control with limited opportunities for true accountability in elections is not the recipe for responsive government. As we look to the next legislative session, civil rights advocates, regardless of their issue, should consider redistricting reform a high priority.