Supermajorities are Where Terrible Things Flourish

David Friedlander
Jul 20, 2018 · 4 min read

A year ago, if someone would have started talking to me about ‘supermajorities’ and ‘trifectas’ I would have thought they were confusing me with a sports fan. Recently, however, I’ve come to understand their pivotal role in politics — particularly in state politics.

In the past 8 years, supermajorities and trifectas have shifted the power in state politics and created an environment where throwback ideas and terrible policies flourish. We hear these terms in the media, but we’re often just vaguely aware of what they are, how they impact politics and our daily lives.

But state politics matter more than we realize. In many states, state legislatures:

  • Make most of the laws that govern Americans’ daily lives; and
  • Are ground zero for the demographic change that may help flip control ahead of the key 2020 redistricting process

Before we expound on that, let’s start with some quick definitions.

What’s a Supermajority?

It’s what gives a single party the ability to override a governor’s veto without support from the opposing party. Conditions to achieve it vary by state, but usually a ⅔ or ⅗ majority in both the state senate and state assembly/house are required.

Today, there are 17 states where Republicans hold a “supermajority” in both houses of the legislature, and 4 states where Democrats do — Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Hawaii (that’s right, Californians, even your true blue state isn’t a supermajority!).

What’s a Trifecta?

In a trifecta, the same party has a simple majority in both state houses and the holds the governorship. The majority party may or may not have a supermajority — but often does.

The balance of trifectas has also shifted significantly in the past 8 years. Before the 2010 elections, there were 17 states with a Democratic trifecta and 10 with a Republican trifecta.

Today, there are 26 states with a Republican trifecta and only 8 with a Democratic one. 16 of the 17 states with a Republican supermajority are also trifecta states.

In those states, conservative legislation can advance unchecked. Only North Carolina has a Republican supermajority and a Democratic governor.

Trifectas are often more toxic to politics and policy, too — there’s no balance of power since the legislature and governor are much less likely to disagree. A Republican governor is unlikely to veto legislation passed by a Republican legislature. A trifecta with a supermajority is completely unbalanced.

The Consequences of Supermajorities and Trifectas

1. Terrible laws get passed easily

In Wisconsin, a trifecta state, the state assembly has 35 Democrats and 64 Republicans — a supermajority. This is despite the fact that the popular vote across the state in most elections has been roughly evenly split (see Gerrymandering issue below).

The result — legislative priorities don’t match with what voters want. In 2014, the legislature refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA. Even though 56 percent of voters supported expanding Medicaid, only 25 percent of the legislature voted for it.

In another example, the Arizona legislature introduced and passed multiple bills in 2016 that stripped cities and counties of authority to regulate locally by declaring minimum wage laws and other issues a “a matter of statewide concern.” City and county governments that want to set minimum wage levels risk losing all of state-shared revenue — which often accounts for half of a city or county’s funds. (The same legislation also blocks local governments from regulating dog breeders, rental-home taxes, plastic grocery bags, backyard chickens and many other issues.)

In Iowa, where there is a GOP trifecta, lawmakers passed a bill this year banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected — which could be as early as six weeks, before some women even know they are pregnant. And in Kentucky, where there is only one single clinic statewide that provides abortions, a law passed that restricts certain procedures after 14 weeks. Both laws are being challenged in court.

There are dozens of other examples where state legislatures have implemented regressive laws that strip citizens of rights and opportunities they have come to expect in America.

2. Conflict can make it difficult to govern

In 2016, North Carolina elected Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat. That broke a Republican trifecta, but opened up conflict between Cooper and the state legislature, where both the Senate and House have a supermajority.

Cooper has vetoed 16 bills passed by the legislature, many of which tried to restrict the governor’s powers. The legislature has overturned 13 of those vetoes. In states with opposing parties in the governor’s office and a supermajority legislature, it can be extremely difficult to govern effectively.

3. Gerrymandering is used to usurp power

Austin, Texas, a fairly liberal city, is represented in Congress by four Republicans and one Democrat. Travis County, home to Austin, is carved up into five Congressional districts, one of which stretches for 175 miles end-to-end. A four block stretch of downtown Austin’s Sixth Street crosses three Congressional districts.

A supermajority and trifecta in Texas made it easy for Republican legislators to carve up Austin and prevent Austin from electing Democratic representatives. Austin’s voters aren’t represented effectively in Congress or the Texas legislature.

Help Us Break Supermajorities and Trifectas!

One of TFC’s priorities is to help break supermajorities. We announced our list of state priorities, including Missouri and Texas, where we have opportunities to break up supermajorities or even flip states.

Whether it’s just a supermajority, a trifecta, or both, they all have serious consequences for citizens. Breaking supermajorities and trifectas in state government is an important part of what you can do as a TFC volunteer working on progressive campaigns in our focus states.

TFC needs volunteers like you — web designers, analytics pros, digital and social marketers — to support 2018 campaigns. Sign up to volunteer here and help break supermajorities.

Tech for Campaigns

Tech for Campaigns is the digital arm for progressive and…