Connecting state and local government leaders
In a new book, political science professor Steven Rogers argues that voters don’t have the tools to keep tabs on their lawmakers. That could impact how legislators do their jobs.
A central tenet of American democracy is that if politicians don’t do a good job representing their constituents, the public can vote them out of office. But when it comes to state legislatures, says one expert in a new book, that’s not how things work.
Steven Rogers, a political science professor at St. Louis University, argues in Accountability in State Legislatures that voters simply don’t punish or reward incumbents for their performance in office. Instead, the electoral fate of state legislators largely depends on factors that have almost nothing to do with their job performance, such as how the national economy is doing or which party the president is from.
“State legislators’ electoral fates … are more closely tied to the performance of the White House than the statehouse, casting doubt on prior explanations of state-level representation and the notion that ‘all politics are local,’” he wrote in the book.
That sets up a situation where lawmakers can do whatever they want, as long as they’re in step with national trends. Democrats who ran for state legislature did very well in 2006 and 2008, only to get swept aside in 2010. But that’s not necessarily because those Democrats were suddenly doing a worse job in their state capitols; they came to office when the public was upset about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and a collapsing economy, only to get caught up in the national backlash against Obamacare, Rogers explained.
“That’s troubling because it basically undermines the whole idea of elections being an accountability mechanism,” he said in an interview. “The legislator needs to have some sort of fear that, ‘If I do something bad, the voter is going to punish me. If the voter is then going to punish or reward me for things that I have nothing to do with, then what incentive do I have to do anything that the voter wants?’”
American voters barely know who their state representatives are or what they do, Rogers said. In fact, voters are more likely to know who their members of Congress, mayors or governors are than their state lawmakers. And even when they do know who they are, voters rarely have meaningful choices at the ballot box, with so many uncontested or noncompetitive races in the primary and general elections.
“Challengers are just not running against incumbents,” Rogers explained, pointing to data showing how legislative races shaped up between 2001 and 2020. In primary elections, 83% of incumbents faced no challenger. For general elections, 45% of sitting lawmakers had no opponent. In fact, 35% of lawmakers had neither.
“If we’re thinking about accountability, before any ballots are cast, 35% of state legislators are reelected just by signing up,” he said. “We’re starting from a pretty big disadvantage before any voter gets involved.”
State legislative districts have become less competitive since the turn of the century, Rogers noted. In 2000, during the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, 25% of all state legislative districts were competitive between Republicans and Democrats. By 2012, only 20% were, and by 2022, just 15% were competitive.
“That is building in a safety net for a lot of state legislators to get reelected,” he said.
The skewed districts can also give lawmakers an incentive to pay attention to the most ideologically extreme voters as they are typically the most informed and most willing to vote in a primary election, Rogers added.
But most voters don’t know much about their state lawmakers. In a 2012 Vanderbilt University poll, Rogers asked Tennessee voters who their state representative was. Only 11% of the respondents provided a correct answer. Later, Rogers gave them the chance to pick their legislator out of a list of five people. Only 22% of them picked the right answer.
“American voters aren’t necessarily fools, but they’re trapped in a very complicated federal system,” he said. “Voters are expected to know who their school board member is, who their mayor is, who their state legislator is, who the attorney general in their state is, who the governor is, who the secretary of state is, who the president is, and who their congressman is.”
In a separate national survey, Rogers found that only 60% of respondents could correctly identify which party controlled their state’s legislature.
That limited knowledge is troublesome at a time when state lawmakers are shaping policies from abortion rights to school funding to gun control that can have a big impact on people’s lives. A single legislator can hold significant sway over those policies, he said, whether by approving restrictions on public employee unions in Wisconsin or switching parties in North Carolina to clear the way for redistricting and abortion laws.
Rogers said there are ways to make lawmakers more accountable. Higher salaries for state legislators or public funding of elections could attract more candidates to run. Drawing more competitive districts could give more voters a substantive choice at the ballot box. Increased media coverage of state governments could help voters identify and keep tabs on their state lawmakers (although Rogers said it would take tripling the coverage of state governments to make state lawmakers as familiar to voters as members of Congress).
Overall, though, those would only lead to slight improvements. “The problem is, we are in such a deep hole, it wouldn’t make a significant difference,” he said. “The Founding Fathers built this country thinking that people are going to be closer to their states and have attachments to these states. That may have been true in the 1800s, but with the increase in the power of the national government and the nationalized media, it’s going to be hard to turn this ship around.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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