Midterm Elections Preview: State Legislatures

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Andrew Pulrang

Seriously, who cares about state legislatures? Why waste time on these middle-level offices them when the future of the Republic is at stake?

We’ll get to that. But first, a bit of a high school social studies review. Sorry, there’s really no way to avoid it. But don’t worry, it won’t hurt too much …

State Legislatures Around The United States

Like Congress, most state legislatures have two houses, a smaller “upper” chamber usually called the State Senate, and a larger “lower” chamber called either a State House or Assembly. The current breakdown of state legislatures is as follows, according to the amazing website Ballotpedia:

  • There are 1,972 state senators nationwide … 1,138 Republicans, 809 Democrats, and 25 from other parties. 36 state senate chambers are controlled by Republicans, and 18 are controlled by Democrats.
  • Meanwhile, there are 5,411 state lower house representatives overall: 2,998 Republicans, 2,331 Democrats, and 82 from other parties. 31 state houses are controlled by Republicans and 18 state houses controlled by Democrats.

Republicans dominate the most state legislatures, by a fairly large margin. As with Congress, parties want majority control in state legislative chambers because that gives them a lot of power, not just to pass or defeat legislation, but to decide what bills and issues will and won’t be discussed. But that’s not all.

One often overlooked but extremely powerful function of state legislatures is to redraw congressional districts every ten years, after each U.S. Census. In theory, district lines are supposed to be drawn based on population and simple geography. In practice, the party in control usually tries to draw district boundaries in ways that give their candidates an advantage. This is called “Gerrymandering.” It’s complicated, and pretty sketchy from a moral standpoint, but it’s hard to pin down any way that it’s illegal. Gerrymandering tends to make it much harder to “flip” congressional districts from one party to another, and it can help a party achieve and hold majority status in Congress for years or decades, even if they are losing popularity overall.

The New York State Legislature

In New York, Republicans have had a hair-thin majority in the Senate since 2010. In the 100 years or so before that, Democrats only rarely held a majority in the State Senate. On the other hand, the Assembly has ususally been heavily dominated by Democrats, also for decades. It’s an unusual situation of divided government which is to some extent baked into the system. It’s odd and dysfunctional, but it’s been mostly protected by leaders and governors of both parties.

It is also important to note that in New York, individual legislators don’t have much power. They can pass small, very specific bills affecting their regions or topics they are interested in. However, budgets have been debated and decided almost exclusively by the top leaders in each chamber, plus the governor.

Why does all this matter to voters with disabilities?

States provide a lot of the services, supports, and tools for independence that disabled people rely on. State legislatures play an important role in determining how much money states have to work with each year, as well as which priorities are funded and which are overlooked, which in turn sets the tone and conditions for disability policy.

Involvement differs from state to state, but states are most likely to have complete or partial responsibility for:


Long term care, including the balance between home care and institutions

Mental health services

Public transportation

Vocational rehabilitation

Special education

Developmental disability services

Some states also supplement federal SSI payments, fund assistive technology and home accessibility, and set policies on everyday matters like handicapped parking fines and enforcement of state building codes.

Beyond these specifics, state legislatures influence, and in many cases determine what will and won’t be done for people with disabilities in a state, simply by controlling the budget. This is where party majorities are most important.

Meanwhile, an individual state legislator might have little influence on the big picture, but they often can influence a very specific issue they choose to champion … like disability rights for instance. So it’s useful for disabled voters to notice candidates for state legislature who seem interested in disability issues, and reach out to cultivate and guide that interest in positive directions.

Finally, legislatures are sort of the Minor Leagues of politics. While they do govern actual states, they also prepare some of their more effective or charismatic members for higher offices, like Congress or state governor. State legislatures can also act as policy laboratories, where new ideas are tested and tinkered with before being introduced on the national stage. At the state level, good ideas on disability can be encouraged, and bad ones spotted early and hopefully stopped.

In New York, all 63 Senate and all 100 Assembly seats are up for election this year. If you are a disabled voter or interested in disability issues, these offices are important enough to be worth your attention, and small-scale enough for you to make a real difference. Find the candidates in your area, ask them questions about disability policy. Above all, vote with intent and purpose when you find them on your Election Day ballot.