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Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. (Photo: Rob Hainer/Shutterstock)

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

• September 02, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. (Photo: Rob Hainer/Shutterstock)

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.

There are nearly 8,000 state legislators in the United States, most of whom are running for re-election this fall. How will voters judge them? As voters work their way down the ballot to decide whether to retain or dump their state legislators, what will form the basis of that decision?

Presumably, they’ll evaluate them as they do presidents, governors, and senators, comparing them against their stated goals when they first ran for office and deciding whether their performance merits another term. Sure, voters usually know less about their state legislators than they do about federal or statewide politicians, but they’re still making some kind of evaluation of the legislator’s performance in office, right?

The result of all of this is 99 legislatures and 8,000 politicians who are operating in a nearly accountability-free environment.

Actually, no. In his recent award-winning dissertation at Princeton, political scientist Steve Rogers examined voting patterns in state legislative elections. It turns out, for one thing, that people’s knowledge of their state legislature is rather paltry. Asked which party controls their state legislature, a majority of citizens either did not know or gave the wrong answer. This, as can be imagined, makes it rather difficult to hold legislators accountable; if you don’t know who’s in charge of the state, it’s hard to reward or punish them for the way things are going.

But beyond that, people aren’t really distinguishing between state legislators and other officeholders when it comes to voting. As Rogers reports, people’s votes for state legislature closely follow their vote for Congress. Very closely. We can see an example in this graph, which charts the change in Democratic seat shares in each election since 1910 for U.S. House and state legislatures:

Voting for State Legislators and US House Members

The trend lines match up with each other nearly perfectly, correlating at 0.96.

What does this mean? People are not evaluating state legislators based on their performance in office. And they’re not really doing that for members of Congress, either. They’re more or less voting a party slate. That is, they make a determination of whether they like the way things are going nationally, and then vote for or against the president’s party based on that for pretty much every partisan office. And as we know from a great deal of research, people evaluate the president’s party in large part on the performance of the national economy.

All this means that the political fortunes of state legislators across the country hinge on events outside their state and outside their control: national economic growth, the popularity of the president, war and peace, etc. Democratic legislators will be punished if their constituents don’t like President Obama and rewarded if they do like him, and that’s largely it.

This is, of course, troubling to consider, since state legislators write many of the laws that affect our day-to-day lives, on topics ranging from abortion to health care to welfare to marriage to weapons. Yet the vast majority of voters apparently don’t notice these laws or consider them when casting their votes.

Why not? Well, as Ezra Klein noted the other day, our media has a built-in bias against covering state and local politics. There’s still plenty of political coverage, of course, but it’s massively skewed in favor of national politics. As newspapers have trimmed their staffs in recent decades, state capitol reporters have usually been among the first on the chopping block. And this is based on the not-unrealistic assumption that people are just more interested in national than local politics. These factors feed back on each other, of course: voters don’t care about local politics, so the media doesn’t cover it, so voters learn even less about it, etc.

But the result of all of this is 99 legislatures and 8,000 politicians who are operating in a nearly accountability-free environment. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. They’re being held accountable, but for the things that other governments did, not what they did. We can lament about voter apathy all we want, but it seems clear that our democracy, with its many different layers and elections, tasks voters with a role they appear either unwilling or unable to play.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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