By most measures, 2016 was the Republicans’ year. They’ll enter 2017 with near-historic majorities in Congress, governors’ mansions and state legislatures, and as attorneys general, secretaries of state — you get the point.
But Democrats and liberal advocates had some surprisingly major victories in 2016, especially on state referendums dealing with drugs, the minimum wage and guns.
Here are the nine biggest state political and policy battles, divided into categories by which side won. Let’s start with the Republicans first.
1. Republicans vs. Democrats
Let’s start with the most obvious battle line. Democrats lost so many state legislative seats during the Obama era — more than 900 — that prognosticators figured they had nowhere to go but up in the 2016 elections. Louis Jacobson with Governing Magazine said a really great election night for Democrats would be netting seven to eight state legislative chambers.
That did not happen. Democrats picked up three chambers (perhaps most impressively, they flipped both chambers in Nevada) but Republicans picked up enough chambers to offset those wins. Which means Republicans will start 2017 pretty much the way they started 2016: With a 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats in state legislative chambers, essentially controlling 68 of 99 chambers. Pile on their victories at the gubernatorial level, and more than 25 states will be entirely controlled by Republicans.
2. Change vs. status quo
At the presidential level, 2016 was one of the most significant change elections in recent history. But that spirit of change did not filter down the ballot.
Of the 7,383 lawmaker positions, just 1,277 will be new lawmakers in 2017, said William Pound, the executive director of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, in a post-election webinar.
Pound said that’s a 17 percent turnover rate — “a tad on the low side” for the average.
We’re giving this one to Republicans, since they control a strong majority of state legislative seats, and the status quo is pretty great for them. If 2016 was a “change election,” Democrats weren’t able to make change work for them.
3. Political alignment of the South
Kentucky Democrats spent much of 2016 trying to fight off the post-civil-rights-era realignment of the South from Democratic to Republican.
They made a valiant effort. After Kentucky Democrats lost the governor’s mansion and several statewide races in 2015, some of their members in the state House defected to the Republican Party. Democrats still managed to win a handful of special elections to keep the state House in Democratic hands. But it didn’t last long.
On election night, Kentucky Democrats lost control of the state House they had held on to for nearly a century — and with it, the party’s last Southern legislative chamber.
Marijuana legalization was on the line in a big way this election year.
Voters in nine states were deciding whether to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational uses — the most ballot initiatives on a single issue since 2004, when 11 states had ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage.
The result was overwhelming. Voters in eight of the nine states voted to ease restrictions on marijuana, meaning some form of marijuana usage will soon be legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia (eight states will soon allow recreational marijuana). It was legalization proponents’ biggest victory since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana.
2. Gun control
Before Election Day, universal background check proposals were 1 for 1 when put to the voters: In 2014, Washington became the first state in recent history to expand background checks. And gun-control advocates faced a defining test in November when a record three states were deciding on whether to expand background checks.
They passed — though not in every case. Background check proposals are now 3 for 4: Maine voters didn’t approve criminal background checks, but Nevada voters did. And California, which already had background checks on the books to buy guns, voted to require people to pass background checks before they buy ammunition. Washington voters gave courts the authority to temporarily take away firearms from people thought to be at risk to themselves or others.
3. Minimum wage
Minimum wage raises have a solid track record when put to the voters. Over the past 20 years, every statewide minimum wage ballot measure save two has passed.
That record largely held in 2016. Of the four states considering raising the minimum wage, all four did. In addition, South Dakota voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to reduce the state minimum wage for workers under 18.
1. Bathroom bills
If same-sex marriage was the social battle of 2015, which public bathrooms and locker rooms transgender people could use was arguably the big one of 2016. And who won depends on the “who” we're talking about.
It looks like 2016 will end with North Carolina being the only state in the nation requiring transgender people to use public restrooms and locker rooms of the gender on their birth certificate.
But passing such a law caused a whole lot of drama for North Carolina Republicans. Their governor arguably lost his job defending it, and by some estimates, widespread backlash to the law caused the state to lose millions in tourism and investment dollars.
After nine months of turmoil, North Carolina Republicans tried to repeal it, citing the fact that Charlotte, the state’s biggest city, got rid of its ordinance that opened up public bathrooms to transgender people. (North Carolina GOP state lawmakers said Charlotte was the reason they passed their bathroom-restriction bill in the first place.)
The state’s repeal effort failed. Which means that in the end, social conservatives in North Carolina got to keep their bathroom law on the books. But they took a big hit politically for it.
On the flip side, Charlotte lost its high-profile standoff with the state over bathrooms: The city council repealed its law that aimed to protect transgender people’s use of opposite-gender bathrooms, only to see the state keep its bathroom restrictions on the books.
2. Voter ID laws
Voters in more than 30 states were asked to show some kind of ID in this presidential election.
Next election, make that at least 31. On Election Day, voters in Missouri approved a change to the state constitution that will allow the GOP-controlled legislature to enact a voter ID law.
But some of the strictest ID laws struggled in 2016 to stand up to court challenges. Federal appeals courts knocked down Texas and North Carolina voter ID requirements, with a court finding the latter targeted African American voters “with almost surgical precision.”
It seems as if states are trending toward requiring voter IDs at the polls, but the courts have found there is a limit to how strict these laws can be. This battle will continue — in the courts, on the ballots and in state legislatures.
3. Death penalty
Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the lowest in a quarter century. (Nearly half of those were in Georgia alone.) And for the first time in almost half a century, a major survey found a majority of Americans oppose the death penalty, as more conservatives made the case to oppose it.
Despite those symbolic victories for death-penalty opponents, voters in three key states decided in November to rev up the death penalty.
In California, voters approved a new law to expedite executions of death row inmates.
Voters in Nebraska decided to reverse their state lawmakers’ 2015 decision to repeal it. A referendum to restore the death penalty passed with 60 percent of the vote — boosted to victory by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), who spent $300,000 of his own money on the pro-death-penalty referendum.
And in Oklahoma, voters overwhelmingly decided to enshrine the death penalty in the state constitution — an effort to protect against any future efforts to declare death-penalty methods unconstitutional.