Most political observers say that Tuesday’s elections were a referendum on Donald Trump or a signal of what will happen in 2020. “The results across the country represent nothing less than a stinging repudiation of Trump on the first anniversary of his election,” wrote The Washington Post, in a typical statement of the conventional wisdom. True, the Democrats did well, picking up state legislative seats from Georgia to New Hampshire, including a massive swing of at least 15 seats in Virginia, as well as the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. But politics can change quickly: Democrats lost the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 and took heavy losses in the 2010 congressional midterms, yet Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. Yesterday’s wins may portend Democratic gains in Congress in 2018. But maybe they won’t. The true implication of the 2017 elections is what they mean for redistricting and electoral reforms in the years to come.
Far more important to future election cycles than any help in prognosticating the public mood one or three years from now is what the results mean for the next round of redistricting that begins in 2021. Although the next redistricting process will not occur for another four years, what happened in elections throughout the country this week will have a significant impact. The governors, state legislators, mayors, and city council members elected this year will play a major role in drawing district lines – and thus setting the course for American democracy.
Under the U.S. Constitution, once a decade states must redraw their legislative lines for Congress, state legislatures, and even local governments like city councils. That task falls in most states to state legislatures and the state’s governor. The legislature will take the data it receives from the 2020 Census and draw district lines for congressional seats and the legislature itself, and the governor will decide whether to approve or veto those maps. City councils often use similar processes for their own lines.