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Joel Williams

Joel Williams is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

New Oregon Secretary of State sworn in; state becomes Democratic triplex

On January 4, Shemia Fagan (D) took her oath of office as Oregon Secretary of State. This gives Democrats triplex control of the state because Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum are both Democrats. A triplex occurs when one party controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. There are 20 Republican triplexes and 18 Democratic triplexes.

Oregon already had a Democratic trifecta, where one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature.

In 32 states, the same political party has both a trifecta and a triplex. Republicans hold such positions in 19 states, while Democrats hold it in 13. Of the 18 states without both a trifecta and a triplex of the same party, six have only a trifecta, six have only a triplex, and six have neither.

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Newly elected Montana state executives take office; state becomes Republican trifecta and triplex

On January 4, Governor Greg Gianforte (R), Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras (R), Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen (R), and Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) took oaths of office in Montana. Each won election in the general election on November 3, 2020.

Gianforte’s victory returned control of the governorship to Republicans (from previous Democratic governor Steve Bullock), who also held onto control of the secretary of state and attorney general offices. This gives Republicans both trifecta and triplex control in the state. A trifecta occurs when one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature. A triplex occurs when one party controls the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general.

Across the country, there are currently 23 Republican trifectas and 15 Democratic trifectas. There are 20 Republican triplexes and 17 Democratic triplexes.

In 31 states, the same political party has both a trifecta and a triplex. Republicans hold such positions in 19 states, while Democrats hold it in 12. Of the 19 states without both a trifecta and a triplex of the same party, seven have only a trifecta, six have only a triplex, and six have neither.



Trump announces 15 pardons, five commutations

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On Dec. 22, President Donald Trump (R) issued 15 pardons and five commutations. Those pardoned included former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos and former congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), and Steve Stockman (R-Texas).

President Trump has issued 43 pardons and 21 commutations while in office. Of those, Trump issued 28 pardons and 15 commutations in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

By comparison, President Barack Obama (D) issued 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations during his eight-year term. The last one-term president, George H.W. Bush (R), issued 74 pardons and three commutations.

Between fiscal years 1902 and 2021, presidents issued 14,233 pardons and 6,568 commutations. Democrats have issued more of both (8,393 pardons and 4,103 commutations) than Republicans (5,840 pardons and 2,465 commutations). These figures do not include instances of mass pardons such as in 1974 when President Ford pardoned individuals who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

The U.S. Constitution, in Article II, Section 2, grants the president the power of executive clemency. Executive clemency includes the power to pardon, in which the president overturns a federal conviction and restores “an individual to the state of innocence that existed before the conviction,” and the power of commutation, which allows a president to shorten or reduce a federal prison sentence. Executive clemency is limited to federal offenses.



Biden announces picks for heads of Interior, Energy, and EPA

On Dec. 17, President-elect Joe Biden announced his picks for secretaries of energy and the interior, and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. These announcements leave five remaining Cabinet-level positions in the Biden administration without announced nominees.

Biden nominated former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) as Secretary of Energy. She served as governor from 2003 to 2011 and since has worked as an adjunct professor of law and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, a senior advisor to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Program, and a contributor on political talk shows.

Biden nominated U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) as Secretary of the Interior. An enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland would be the first person of Native American descent to serve in this position. In the 116th Congress, Haaland served on the natural resources and armed services committees.

Biden nominated Michael Regan, North Carolina’s secretary of environmental quality, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regan worked for the EPA under the Clinton and Bush administrations from 1998 to 2008. He would be the first Black man to serve in this position.

The five remaining Cabinet-level positions without announced nominees are Attorney General, Commerce, Labor, Education, and Small Business Administration.



Ballotpedia’s Weekly Transition Tracker: December 12-December 18, 2020

Prior to taking office on January 20, 2021, President-elect Joe Biden (D) and his team must prepare for the transition between presidential administrations, including selecting senior White House staff and appointees to top government positions.

In 2016, there were 1,714 government positions subject to presidential appointment: 1,242 positions required Senate confirmation and 472 did not. The new administration is also responsible for filling thousands of other positions across the federal government, including in operations and policy. Every weekday, Ballotpedia is tracking potential Cabinet nominees, appointments, and news related to the Biden presidential transition.

Appointments and Nominations (Cabinet)

Debra Haaland, Secretary of the Interior

Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) was elected to Congress in 2018. In the 116th Congress, Haaland served on the natural resources and armed services committees. An enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland would be the first person of Native American descent to serve in this position according to The Washington Post

Haaland’s district, New Mexico’s 1st, is rated Solid Democratic. Vacancies in the U.S. House are filled by special election.

Pete Buttigieg, secretary of transportation

Pete Buttigieg is a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. He served in the United States Navy Reserve as an intelligence officer, where he earned the rank of lieutenant. He graduated from Harvard University and Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy

Jennifer Granholm was governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 and attorney general of Michigan from 1999 to 2003. Since leaving office, Granholm has worked as an adjunct professor of law and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, a senior advisor to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Program, and a contributor on political talk shows.

Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Michael Regan is the secretary of environmental quality in North Carolina. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) appointed him to the position in January 2017. Regan worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clinton and Bush administrations from 1998 to 2008. He would be the first Black man to serve in this position according to The New York Times.

Appointments and Nominations (Non-Cabinet)

Biden’s office announced three other key administration appointments:

  • Brenda Mallory as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Mallory is the Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
  • Gina McCarthy as National Climate Advisor. McCarthy would lead the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and work as the counterpart to John Kerry, the presidential envoy for climate. She was EPA Administrator from 2013 to 2017.
  • Ali Zaidi as Deputy National Climate Advisor. Zaidi worked in the Obama administration on the Climate Action Plan and helped negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement.

Potential Nominees

  • Axios reported that Biden is considering selecting a Republican for secretary of Commerce, and mentioned former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman as one possibility.

Other News

  • Biden won 306 electoral votes when Electoral College members met in each state and Washington, D.C., on Monday. President Donald Trump (R) received 232 votes. There were no faithless electors. Congress will count the electoral votes in a joint session on January 6, 2021, and declare a winner—subject to objections to an individual state’s electoral votes raised by the combination of one member each of the House and Senate.
  • The Senate Finance Committee sent questionnaires to Janet Yellen (nominee for treasury secretary) and Xavier Becerra (nominee for health and human services secretary) on Dec. 15. The questionnaires are the beginning of their nomination processes.
  • The Inauguration Committee announced that Biden and Harris will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol in January. Only members of the 117th Congress and one guest each will be allowed to attend the event in person.
  • Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Biden’s incoming director of the Office of Public Engagement, tested positive for COVID-19. Biden representative Kate Bedingfield said Richmond was not in close contact with Biden, and would quarantine for two weeks and be tested twice before returning to work.
  • CNN reported Biden will receive a COVID-19 vaccine publicly the week of Dec. 21. On Dec. 16, Biden told reporters, “I don’t want to get ahead of the line, but I want to make sure we demonstrate to the American people that it is safe to take. When I do it, I’ll do it publicly, so you can all witness my getting it done.”

Transition in Context: How the Electoral College Works

Members of the Electoral College in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., met to cast each state’s electoral votes for president and vice president on Dec. 14. But how did the process work? Here’s a quick explainer:

The Electoral College is the process by which the states and District of Columbia elect the president of the United States. The number of each state’s electors is equal to the size of its congressional delegation. The number of electoral votes allocated to each state can change every 10 years or so when the number of U.S. House members are reapportioned after the census.

There were 538 electors in total. To win the Electoral College, a candidate needed to receive a majority—at least 270—electoral votes.

Presidential candidates in each state select a slate of electors that are pledged to support him or her should they win the state. These electors are typically selected by the state party through conventions or a committee vote. When a candidate wins the popular vote in a state, their slate of electors represents that state in the Electoral College. The only exceptions to this are in Maine and Nebraska, which assign two at-large electors to the statewide winner and one elector to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.

Each state’s electors meet separately in their respective states and cast paper ballots for president and vice president. The electors then sign and seal six certificates of the vote, as specified by federal law.

These certificates have been posted to the website of the National Archives as they have been received. The certificates must be delivered by Dec. 23 to the president of the U.S. Senate, the state secretary of state (two copies), the archivist of the United States (two copies), and the judge of the U.S. district court in the district where they met. Congress will count the electoral votes in a joint session on Jan. 6 and declare a winner—subject to any objections to an individual state’s electoral votes.

Want to know who the electors are in your state this election cycle? We’re tracking them here.

Transition in Context: Timing of Announcements

Transition in Context: Outcome of 2017 special elections caused by nominations to Trump’s Cabinet

Five special elections were held in 2017 to fill vacancies created by Republican members of Congress who joined the Trump administration. One of the five resulted in a partisan flip to Democratic control. There are expected to be three special elections as a result of members of Congress joining the Biden administration.

  • U.S. Senate in Alabama: Incumbent Jeff Sessions (R) vacated the seat to serve as U.S. attorney general. Democrat Doug Jones won the special election.

Transition in Context: Current SCOTUS Composition

Filling vacancies on the Supreme Court of the United States is one duty of the President of the United States. Who currently serves on the court, who were they nominated by, and how old are they? Find out below.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts, 65, nominated by George W. Bush (R) 
  • Justice Clarence Thomas, 72, nominated by George H.W. Bush (R) 
  • Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, nominated by Bill Clinton (D)
  • Justice Samuel Alito, 70, nominated by George W. Bush (R)
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 66, nominated by Barack Obama (D)
  • Justice Elena Kagan, 60, nominated by Barack Obama (D)
  • Justice Neil Gorsuch, 53, nominated by Donald Trump (R)
  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh, 55, nominated by Donald Trump (R)
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett, 48, nominated by Donald Trump (R) 

President Donald Trump (R) appointed three justices to the Supreme Court. The four preceding presidents (Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush) appointed two justices each.

Trump’s three and H.W. Bush’s two appointments came during one-term presidencies. Obama, W. Bush, and Clinton made their two appointments to the court over two presidential terms.

Transition in Context: In Their Words…

Here’s how Democratic and Republican leaders, advisers, and stakeholders have reacted to the nomination of Pete Buttigieg for Secretary of Transportation.

  • “As a former city leader here in Indiana, Pete understands how critical infrastructure is to growth and opportunity. It will be good to have a Hoosier serving in this capacity.” – U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), member of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee
  • “I would push back [against the notion that Buttigieg is not qualified] by saying he’s extraordinarily talented. He’s got a lot of what we call out here Midwest common sense, he’s a hard worker. And I think he’ll serve, not you know as a Democrat or Republican obviously but as somebody trying to lead all of America, every community, rural, urban, wherever to be stronger.” – Former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
  • “He may not have the experience right now. His experience on the national level with transportation is going to be limited coming in.” – Eric Horvath, South Bend public works director
  • “Former-Mayor Buttigieg’s forward-looking approach supported by data-driven decision making will serve him well as the next Secretary of Transportation. On behalf of AAR and the nation’s rail industry, we look forward to working with Mr. Buttigieg to modernize the nation’s surface transportation.” – Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads
  • “Pete Buttigieg is committed to transformational infrastructure investment that creates good jobs and he is ready to lead the fight for transportation workers. The TWU is looking forward to working with Secretary-designate Buttigieg to invest in public transit, raise safety standards for aircraft maintenance, prioritize Amtrak, and ensure that workers benefit from new technologies like autonomous vehicles as our economy grows.” – John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union

What We’re Reading



13 percent of open congressional seats changed party hands in 2020

Forty congressional incumbents—four in the Senate and 36 in the House—did not run for re-election in 2020. Of these 40 open seats, five (12.5 percent) changed party hands as a result of the 2020 elections. All five changes occurred in the House, where Democrats picked up three open seats previously held by Republicans and Republicans picked up two open seats—one held by a Democrat and the other by a Libertarian. Those seats were:

  1. Georgia’s 7th (Republican to Democrat)
  2. Iowa’s 2nd (Democrat to Republican)
  3. North Carolina’s 2nd (Republican to Democrat)
  4. North Carolina’s 6th (Republican to Democrat)
  5. Michigan’s 3rd (Libertarian to Republican)

In Iowa’s 2nd, certified results showed Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R) beating Rita Hart (D) by six votes. Hart indicated she would challenge the results of the election with the U.S. House. 

The group of 40 incumbents who did not run for re-election included 10 Democrats, 29 Republicans, and one Libertarian. They represented 8.5 percent of all 470 Congressional offices up for election.

Across all 2020 Congressional elections, 16 seats changed hands. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate while Republicans picked up one. In the House, Democrats picked up three seats while Republicans picked up 10 seats.



Republican win certified in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, with challenge possible

The state of Iowa certified results in the election for its 2nd Congressional District, which indicate Republicans are primed to pick up their second open seat previously held by a Democrat in the 2020 U.S. House elections. Certified results showed Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R) beating Rita Hart (D) by six votes. Hart indicated she would challenge the results of the election with the U.S. House. 

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D) did not run for re-election this cycle. The other open seat Republicans picked up was Michigan’s 3rd, currently represented by Justin Amash (L).

Under the Federal Contested Elections Act of 1969, the challenge will be referred to the House Administration Committee. If the committee recommends the matter to the full House, the chamber will decide the outcome by a majority vote. Article I, Section 5, of the U.S. Constitution establishes that each chamber of Congress “shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members.” 

Democrats currently control the House, and they are expected to maintain their majority when the next Congress convenes.

Democrats picked up three seats in open races for districts represented by Republicans: Georgia’s 7th, North Carolina’s 2nd, and North Carolina’s 6th. There are still two remaining open seat races without a clear winner.

Across all 2020 Congressional elections, 16 seats changed hands. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate while Republicans picked up one. In the House, Democrats picked up three seats while Republicans picked up 10 seats.



10 percent of open Congressional seats changed party hands in 2020

Forty Congressional incumbents—four in the Senate and 36 in the House—did not run for re-election in 2020. Of these 40 open seats, four (10 percent) changed party hands as a result of the 2020 elections, and an additional three races were still too close to call as of Nov. 18. All four changes occurred in the House, where Democrats picked up three seats held by Republicans and Republicans picked up one seat held by a Libertarian.

The group of 40 incumbents who did not run for re-election included 10 Democrats, 29 Republicans, and one Libertarian. They represented 8.5 percent of all 470 Congressional offices up for election.

Across all 2020 Congressional elections, 16 seats changed hands. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate while Republicans picked up one. In the House, Democrats picked up three seats while Republicans picked up 10 seats.

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One-sixth of U.S. House retirees in 2020 won re-election in 2018 by less than six points

Of the 36 U.S. House incumbents that did not run for re-election in 2020, six (16.7%) won re-election in 2018 by less than six points. That’s a higher percentage than in both 2018 (10.3%) and 2016 (7.3%).

Exactly one-third of 2020 retirees won re-election in 2018 by more than 36 points. That’s a higher percentage than 2018 (27.5%) but lower than 2016 (41.4%). The 2020 retiree with the largest margin of victory in 2018 was Jose Serrano, who won re-election to represent New York’s 15th Congressional District by 92 percentage points.

One 2020 retiree, Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), was unopposed in his last re-election campaign. That matches the number of 2016 retirees who were previously unopposed. The 2018 election cycle had two retirees who were previously unopposed.

The 36 members of the U.S. House in this analysis do not include members of the 116th Congress who left office early. Of those 36 members, nine are Democrats, 26 are Republicans, and one is a Libertarian.



Number of Republican-majority federal circuit courts has doubled in Trump administration

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Since Donald Trump (R) took office in January 2017, he has appointed 52 judges to the 13 federal circuit courts. At the time of his inauguration, a majority of members on four of those courts were appointed by Republican presidents. Before the 2020 election, a majority of members on eight of those courts were appointed by Republican presidents.

In January 2017, there were 90 circuit court judges appointed by Democrats, 74 appointed by Republicans, and 14 vacancies. In November 2020, there were 80 circuit court judges appointed by Democrats, 97 appointed by Republicans, and one vacancy.

Five circuit courts did not flip from majority Democratic-appointed to majority Republican-appointed, all but one kept the same partisan balance. The Ninth Circuit went from an 18-9 Democratic-appointed majority before Trump took office to a 16-13 Democratic-appointed majority split (with no vacancies). The other four are the First, Tenth, D.C, and Federal Circuits.

The Republican-appointed majority in the four circuit courts that were majority Republican-appointed when Trump took office all increased those majorities. The Fifth Circuit moved from R+5 to R+7, the Sixth Circuit from R+5 to R+6, the Seventh Circuit from R+2 to R+6, and the Eighth Circuit from R+6 to R+9.

Trump has made the most appointments (10) to the Ninth Circuit. He has six appointments each to the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. The only circuits without a Trump appointee as of November 2020 were the First Circuit and the Federal Circuit.



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