A troubling portrait of democracy in US state legislatures.
State legislatures hold tremendous authority over key facets of our lives, ranging from healthcare to marriage to immigration policy. In theory, elections create incentives for state legislators to produce good policies. But do they?
Drawing on wide-ranging quantitative and qualitative evidence, Steven Rogers offers the most comprehensive assessment of this question to date, testing different potential mechanisms of accountability. His findings are sobering: almost ninety percent of American voters do not know who their state legislator is; over one-third of incumbent legislators run unchallenged in both primary and general elections; and election outcomes have little relationship with legislators’ own behavior.
Rogers’s analysis of state legislatures highlights the costs of our highly nationalized politics, challenging theories of democratic accountability and providing a troubling picture of democracy in the states.
Media Coverage of Accountability in State Legislatures
Where to purchase Accountability in State Legislatures
All author royalties go to the Missouri Youth and Government Program
Chapter 1: Introduction
This chapter reviews how states are becoming increasingly active policymakers, foundational research on state-level representation, and what we know about accountability in state legislatures. It additionally outlines competing theoretical purposes of elections and the logic of electoral accountability, drawing from the founding fathers and contemporary political theorists. Readers are given conceptual and empirical benchmarks for accountability in state legislatures, such as whether the strength of electoral connections in state legislatures matches those found in Congress. The chapter concludes with a plan of how the book will assess the extent to which state legislative elections meet these expectations and benchmarks for accountability in American legislatures.
Chapter 2: Legislators Not Seeking Reelection: You Can’t Fire Me If I Quit
From 2001 to 2020, almost 20 percent of state legislators did not seek reelection, and this chapter investigates why state legislators leave office without facing voters. Legislators left office due to term limits, an unfavorable partisan district, and personal reasons, leaving voters little opportunity to hold their elected officials accountable. However, they also may retire because they performed poorly in office and be scared to run for reelection. If so, elections might provide a desirable, indirect form of accountability. Regrettably, for accountability in state legislatures, this chapter shows that legislators who provide poor representation or oversee weak economies do not retire more often. Instead of running scared, few legislators appear scared to run because of their own performance.
Chapter 3: Challengers in State Legislative Elections: A Lack of Choice
Rarely do more than 60 percent of state legislators face major-party opposition, a rate over 20 percent lower than that in U.S. House elections. This chapter investigates when and why legislators face electoral competition in the general election, as it would be difficult for voters to hold their legislators electorally accountable without an opposition candidate to support. Challengers less often run when they have to make more significant financial or time commitments. Promising for the prospects of accountability in state legislatures, state legislators who provide undesirable representation or oversee poor state economies face more competition, indicating challengers help provide voters opportunities to hold poorly performing legislators individually accountable. More concerningly, challengers more often strategically take advantage of political conditions outside state legislators’ control. The president’s state legislative co-partisans regularly face more challengers, especially in midterm elections and during unpopular presidencies. If legislators recognize that national politics dictates whether they face competition, incumbents could become less concerned about their own state-level policymaking’s electoral consequences.
Chapter 4: Who Represents You in the Legislature
Many voters do not know who is responsible for making policy, which is often required for elections to produce effective accountability. This chapter shows that almost 90 percent of voters cannot recall their state representative’s name, and over 40 percent of voters regularly cannot correctly name their state house majority party. Voters more often identify which party controls their legislature under unified government and when the legislature is polarized. This chapter also documents the decline of state house news coverage and its impact on voter knowledge. A third fewer reporters cover state government since the turn of the century, and the number of reporters devoted to covering all 50 state governments is less than half of that credentialed for a single Superbowl. More media coverage increases voter knowledge, but even under an unlikely hypothetical scenario of tripling the number of statehouse reporters, voters would still be less likely to identify the party that controls the state house than the U.S. House.
Chapter 5: What Do Voters Think About in State Legislative Elections
This chapter examines results from a novel nationwide survey where voters provided thoughts about state legislative elections in their own words. Approximately a third of voters did not identify something they liked or disliked about either of their state legislative candidates, and over 75 percent of voters could not identify something their state legislator did for their district. Such voter knowledge findings raise concerns for accountability and cast doubt whether canonical “electoral connection” arguments about American national politics meaningful apply to state legislatures. For instance, why should a state legislator “credit claim” for passing a bill or fixing a road if voters are unaware of what their legislators do? This chapter’s findings also motivate analyses in subsequent chapters. For example, 20 percent of voters mentioned specific policy issues in describing their likes and dislikes of their state legislative candidates, which relates to Chapter 6’s focus on individual accountability for legislators’ representation. Over 40 percent of voters cannot correctly identify whether their state parties were more liberal or conservative than the federal parties, which relates to Chapter 7’s focus on collective accountability and the complexities of American federalism.
Chapter 6: Accountability for Representation: “Out of Step” but Mostly Still in Office
This chapter investigates whether voters hold their state legislators accountable for their individual behavior, such as their roll-call voting or effectiveness, in four separate studies. The first study uses survey data to show that voters report punishing state legislators whom they perceive to be ideologically distant from them. However, when examining actual election results instead of survey responses, the second study shows that a standard deviation change in a state legislator’s representation measure results in less than a one percent change in vote share, which is a smaller electoral price than that paid by their Congressional counterparts. The third study further examines representation’s electoral implications and investigates if voters punish state legislators for unpopular, individual roll-call votes. The study uses veto-referendum election returns to provide district-level measures of public opinion on the exact bill adopted by the legislature. Unlike findings from Congressional elections, state legislators do not face meaningful electoral punishment for unpopular roll-call votes. The fourth study uses two different measures of legislative effectiveness (e.g., the ability to get a sponsored bill passed) and provides little evidence that voters punish ineffective legislators in 40 of 46 examined states.
Chapter 7: The Electoral Impact of Party Performance: All Politics Are Not Local
This chapter investigates whether voters hold members of the state legislative majority parties collectively accountable, similar to a system of responsible party government. State performance as measured by 25 different policy outcomes across eight policy areas (e.g., economy, education, or health care) relates little with state legislative election outcomes, since the 1970s. Surveys similarly show that voters’ approval of the legislature’s performance has weak relationships with their voting decisions. This chapter also identifies two key reasons for the lack of accountability in state legislatures: voter misinformation and the nationalization of state politics. First, even when perceiving the legislature to have performed well, misinformed voters (e.g., those who believe Republicans are in charge when Democrats are) mistakenly electorally reward the minority party, indirectly punishing the party in power for doing a good job. Second, voters’ approval of the president has at least three times the impact on voters’ decision-making in state legislative elections compared to their assessments of how the state legislature performed. Such misinformation and nationalization findings cast doubt that the theory of the “miracle of aggregation” applies to state legislative elections, which was central to prior explanations of state-level representation.
Chapter 8: “Accountability in Primary Elections”
Fewer than 15 percent of incumbents face an in-party primary challenger, and over 98 percent of incumbents win their primary races. This chapter investigates the relationship between representation and competition in state legislative primaries across the country. Consistent with theoretical predictions concerning primaries and polarization, ideologically extreme state legislators of both major parties face fewer primary challengers, and more liberal Democratic legislators win primary elections more often. Legislators who are more loyal to their party are also more likely to win their primary elections. Such findings raise concerns for those who believe legislators should represent the median voter. For instance in safe districts, the electoral incentives for extreme representation in the primary election outweigh the electoral incentives for moderate representation in the general election. Such electoral rewards and punishment for representation in the primary election is a form of “accountability,” but this type of accountability creates incentives for incumbents to represent in-party voters instead of the majority of their district.
Chapter 9: The Cracking Foundation of Statehouse Democracy
This concluding chapter reviews how both elites and voters are responsible for the lack of accountability in state legislative elections. The chapter connects accountability findings to more recent work on state-level representation that produces seemingly conflicting takeaways, highlighting the implications national politics’ dominance of state legislative elections has for policymaking. It also addresses how well-tested assumptions in the federal setting do not necessarily hold in states, largely due to the complexities introduced by the American federal system. My findings then serve as a cautionary warning to political scientists who use the “laboratories of democracy” to test theories developed in studies of Congress. More importantly, the lack of evidence of electoral connections in states serves as a shaky foundation for statehouse democracy.
“Rogers offers the most comprehensive account of state legislative elections, in all their diverse aspects, yet attempted. He documents the fragility of the ‘electoral connection’ at the state level and thereby raises troubling questions about the health of American democracy. Richly empirical and full of original and fascinating findings, it marks a major advance in the study of its subject.”
Gary Jacobson – UCSD
“Do elections hold state legislators to account? The answer is ‘yes’ but a qualified ‘yes,’ according to Steven Rogers. Using an impressive array of data, Rogers analyzes this question from every conceivable angle. Every student of state legislatures, state elections, and state politics should read this book– if only to find out why the author recommends all states should be like Nebraska in having a unicameral legislature.”
Virginia Gray – UNC-Chapel Hill
“For every Member of Congress in the U.S., there are almost fourteen state legislators, and Americans states make critical policy decisions from abortion and education to guns and taxes. Yet this books offers something exceedingly rare: a comprehensive study of state legislative elections. A model of conceptual clarity and analytic rigor, Rogers’ scholarship makes a compelling case for the limits of accountability in state legislative elections.”
Dan Hopkins – University of Pennsylvania
“Understanding the relationship between elections and state policymakers’ decisions is increasingly vital, and Accountability in State Legislatures is a major contribution to the growing scholarship on how state democratic institutions operate. Rogers’ exhaustively researched analysis is essential reading for learning about the factors that determined who gets elected and how voters do–or do not– hold them accountable.”
Tim Storey – NCSL CEO