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New voting restrictions and gerrymanders in swing states are built on foundations of disproportional representation

BERKELEY: A new analysis of 2020 election results shows that district lines dramatically inflated the Republican majorities that passed some of the most controversial voter-access restrictions and redistricting maps in 2021. If seats were allocated proportionally to actual votes, Republicans in the Georgia senate, Florida senate, and North Carolina house would hold one- or zero-seat majorities, rather than the 8- to 18-seat advantages they currently enjoy.

The research brief, published by the Othering and Belonging Institute (OBI) at University of California, Berkeley, brings to light how disproportional representation in state legislatures underlies some of the most pressing threats to democracy today. In swing states where Republican majorities are passing new voting restrictions and manipulating political boundaries in their favor, their unfettered legislative control is itself the result of prior electoral structures that advantage the GOP at the expense of the equality of votes and voters. 

The growing fragility of representative democracy in the United States has garnered heightened media attention of late, particularly after the insurrection in Washington, DC that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election exactly one year ago. But even coverage of the many anti-democratic maneuvers that hinge on swing state legislatures–voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, removal of authority from election officials, and the looming possibility of “contending slates” of electors to the Electoral College–rarely examines how these legislatures came to one-party Republican dominance in the first place. 

“There are two misunderstandings that I think it’s critical that this brief dispel,” said the study’s author, Joshua Clark, Political Participation Analyst at OBI. “The first is the idea that the reason we have new laws undermining voter access and representation is that voters overwhelmingly selected restrictionist legislators in 2020. They did not; the actual vote counts just don’t bear that out.”

“The second misunderstanding,” Clark continued, “is that the types of attacks on democracy that we have seen since voters chose Biden over Trump are new, and will inevitably fail, like the effort to overturn that election did. To the contrary, the current anti-democracy movement in the United States is not in ‘phase one.’ We are a number of steps down that road because prior efforts have already had so much success in undermining ‘one person, one vote’.”

The analysis calculates states’ divergence from proportional representation and the “one person, one vote” ideal in a straightforward way. It begins by adding up the total number of votes cast for all Democratic candidates and those for all Republican candidates across all 2020 races for legislative chambers in several swing states. Clark then compares the share of votes that each major party received to the share of legislative seats each was allocated. He further calculates the number of votes needed per legislator for each of the two major parties, showing how some voters’ votes were effectively worth more, and others’ worth less.

This reappraisal of 2020 election results shows that Democratic candidates did not in fact do as badly in terms of votes as their number of state legislative defeats suggest. Instead, the way district lines divided voters left those who cast ballots for Democrats underrepresented.

For example, across the 120 house districts in North Carolina, Republicans received just shy of 50 percent of the vote to Democrats’ 49.06 percent. But whereas a proportional distribution would have split the house chamber 60-59, the Republicans’ narrow overall edge instead delivered 69 seats to the GOP and just 51 to the Democrats. Calculated another way, in North Carolina the “average cost” for each state house seat delivered to the GOP was about 38,000 voters casting ballots for Republican candidates. For the Democratic Party, it took about 51,000 voters per seat, making a Democratic vote equal to just ¾ the value of each Republican one.

Clark argues that this story has mostly eluded coverage of Democrats’ alleged 2020 “down-ballot bust.” Even within the Democratic Party, says Clark, “Too much of the response to voters who are concerned about voting rights, reproductive rights, and much more is: ‘You just need to turn out more, vote all the way down the ballot, and elect more of us.’ But that misplaces the blame, and fails to shine a light on the real, structural problem.”

The brief reveals the electoral backstory on the commanding Republican majorities that, in 2021, would go on to pass unprecedented voter-access restrictions in Florida and Georgia, and a congressional map in North Carolina that analysts consider among the most gerrymandered of the last two redistricting cycles.

Clark terms this succession “anti-democracy cascades,” describing how structural advantages and disadvantages produce electoral outcomes in one cycle that enable multiple further and deeper manipulations and attacks on equal representation in the next. While the drawing of district boundaries may seem a less acute threat to our democracy than, for example, political violence in the Capitol, this brief demonstrates how effectively it is being used across several swing states to unravel the will of voters and move away from majoritarian representative government.

Key findings from the brief:

  • Across swing states in which the most controversial voting restrictions were enacted in 2021, and those considered highest risk for extreme partisan gerrymandering, Republicans are consistently overrepresented in their state houses relative to the total share of votes the party’s legislative candidates received.
    • The unrestricted power these Republican majorities have over legislative agendas comes from district lines that inflate what should be narrow majorities (or less) into single-party dominance; these majorities do not reflect the manifest will of voters.
  • 2020 Democratic legislative-candidate slates in swing states tended to perform only marginally worse than the Biden-Harris ticket (if at all), even where they won far fewer seats than Republicans.
  • The Georgia and Florida state senates that originated far-ranging new laws rolling back voter access are both composed of 60-40 Republican majorities. But in the absence of district lines (i.e. under proportional representation), these state senates would be bare one-vote majorities, possibly with a third-party representative that serves as a tie-making vote on legislation.
  • In an extreme case, Michiganders live under minority-party rule. The GOP holds majorities of seats in the state house and senate despite that their candidates received fewer total votes in both chambers. In 2021, these fabricated Republican majorities passed new voting restrictions and proposed legislation (HB 5091) that perpetuates Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election.
  • The implications for U.S. democracy are serious and pressing: 
    • These steps are designed to make it harder for voters to limit the Republican Party’s power, even if majorities vote to do so.
    • The response from many voices in the Democratic Party that voters must simply vote for more of them fails to address structural problems, and is an entirely inadequate defense of voters.
    • For any of the structural reforms most likely to curb problems of democratic backsliding addressed in the brief, 2022 is a pivotal year.

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