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Registered voters overshot their lawmakers’ annual pay by large margins in a recent survey. When given the correct salaries, respondents were more likely to support pay increases for legislators.
In New Hampshire, state legislators make an annual salary of $100, but their constituents think it’s closer to $81,273, or more than 800 times the actual rate. In Wisconsin, voters guessed that their state lawmakers took home $109,986 per year, more than twice the actual salary of $50,950.
Registered voters, it turns out, have very little idea what their state lawmakers are paid, which may be part of the reason that the notion of raising legislator salaries is notoriously unpopular, according to new research by Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.
Cooper sensed that the average voter had little understanding of state government in general, particularly when it came to salary rates for elected officials. To test that theory, he conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 registered voters from four states—two with Republican-controlled governments (North Carolina and Wisconsin), two with Democrat-majority legislatures (California and New Hampshire).
“My sense, just teaching classes and talking to people about politics, is that there is an assumption that politicians are getting rich,” Cooper said. “That’s not true, at least at the state level. I’m very interested in state politics and I think that a lack of information is the real problem as it relates to people’s understanding of state government, whether it’s who is representing us, or what the state legislature actually is, or what they’re making.”
The survey, conducted online from Nov. 25 through Dec. 4, 2019, asked participants to estimate the salary of a lawmaker in their state. After entering their guesses, one group of respondents was told the actual pay rate, while a control group was asked a question about the importance of recycling instead of receiving the correct wage. Both groups then proceeded to a series of questions about state government, their state’s legislature and their own political attitudes and demographics.
The results were astonishing, Cooper said. The average guess for lawmaker salary was wildly overestimated in each state. In California, the highest-paid legislature in the country, lawmakers take home an annual salary of $100,113; the average guess from voters there was $165,270, or 65% too high. In North Carolina, legislators make $13,951, but voters estimated an average salary of $124,705, nearly nine times the actual pay rate.
“One-quarter of California participants misestimated by more than $100,000,” the report said. “In Wisconsin fewer than 15% of participants were within $10,000 of the true salary and 15% misestimated the true answer by more than $100,000.”
Just over 7% of North Carolina voters guessed within $10,000, while 14% overshot legislative salaries by more than $100,000. Voters in New Hampshire performed the best, Cooper wrote—“just over one quarter of the participants estimated the salary within $10,000, and one-fifth over-estimated by more than $100,000.”
As Cooper had expected, survey participants who received accurate information about pay rates were more likely to support salary increases for legislators (33% of respondents, compared to 17% in the control group). But the results also showed that providing accurate salary information had little to no effect on people’s perceptions of the lawmakers themselves.
Cooper tested those impressions by asking participants how well a series of phrases—“they provide strong leadership,” “they are honest,” “they are serving in the state legislature for the right reasons”—described their own lawmakers. (Response options ranged from “extremely well” to “not well at all.”) According to the results, “there was no difference between the experimental and control groups on these questions.”
Cooper found that outcome surprising, particularly since participants were more willing to consider pay increases for legislators after learning that their salaries are lower than expected.
“I thought respondents would be more likely to say, ‘OK, if they’re not making as much as I thought, maybe they’re more honest than I thought, or they’re doing it for the right reasons,’” he said. “Some of that might be a limitation in the study itself, but I think what it also says is that generally, opinions of bad politicians are baked pretty deeply into people’s psyches.”
It may also be due to a general lack of knowledge about state and local government. Fewer than 20% of voters know the names of their state legislators, and most don’t know whether serving as a state lawmaker is a full-time job, according to a 2018 survey by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
“Part of this is just our hyperfocus, as a country, on national politics,” Cooper said. “In general, that’s what our media covers. Salary rarely gets brought up. And I don’t think we can expect people to know things that we don’t tell them.”
Cooper’s report concludes by encouraging pollsters, political scientists and even legislators to note that the survey results suggest “that providing citizens with information about how their government works may alter their opinions on governance questions, as long as they are closely connected to the process in question.” Correcting misinformation could potentially increase support for higher legislative salaries, he said, though that outcome is likely to take time, if it happens at all.
“I think it would take a lot to change it,” he said. “Politicians and legislators believe that if they were to vote for a salary increase, it gives perfect fodder for their opponent, and I think they’re right. That is to the detriment of a well-functioning democracy. I think we’re probably going to be in this position for a while, but the best chance we have to change a bad situation is by educating people.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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