The real problem with state legislatures

Is that nobody actually votes for state legislators.  Oh, they literally do, of course, but the vast majority of voters are absolutely clueless about the politics of their state legislators and are simply voting based on the party they support in national elections.  Now, the headline of this Vox piece is, “This study shows American federalism is a total joke” and I think that’s wrong, because regardless of this problem, federalism really does have a lot to recommend it (not to say it’s necessarily better than unitary government; different advantages and disadvantages).  That said, it is hugely problematic that our state legislatures are so determined by presidential approval.  Vox’s Jeff Stein summarizes the latest Political Science research:

Republicans dominate America’s state governments — even in some of the country’s most liberal states.

Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan have all voted Democratic in the past two presidential elections. But Republicans have complete control over their state legislatures and governorships, paving the way for them to enact far-reaching conservative policy agendas.

A new study takes a closer look at why. Professor Steven Rogers of Saint Louis University found that voters don’t make decisions about whether to reelect their state lawmakers because of their specific policies, campaign promises, voting records, or any of the other things you’d normally expect to be relevant to their position as local lawmakers…

In his new study, Rogers writes that the public often has no idea what’s going on in their state legislatures, or what their state representatives are arguing about or why. They don’t even know who their representatives are…

A sad reality: presidential approval ratings drive state legislature elections

It is in this void that voters tend to focus on something else altogether: what they think of the president.

It’s not that voters’ perceptions of the state legislatures themselves are completely irrelevant. Voters are about 6 percent more likely to vote against their state lawmaker if they disapprove of their state legislature, and they’re about 9 percent more likely to do so if they disapprove of their governor.

But the president’s popularity was way, way more important in shaping outcomes for state lawmakers… [emphases mine]

Rogers looked at a big data set of online polling from the 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections. He found that voters were more than 40 percent more likely to vote against their state lawmaker if they disapproved of the president. (That controlled for the pull of partisanship, or voting against a lawmaker because he or she is a member of the opposition party, according to Rogers.) Overall, attitudes toward the presidency were more than three times more important for a legislator’s reelection bid than attitudes toward the state legislature itself.

Whoa.  But why should we care?  Well, Stein argues that statehouse policy is really important– and it is!– but we should really be worried about presidential popularity as a result.  True, in a narrow sense.  In a larger sense, though, what this means is that we have appallingly little democratic accountability at the level of government that arguably has the most impact on our lives.  No, I don’t know how we should change that, but I’m damn sure that we should.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to The real problem with state legislatures

  1. ohwilleke says:

    The more local a government is the less accountable and competent it is and if you get all the way to small, local governments in rural areas and HOA boards the amount of incompetency and malfeasance is off the charts.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    In North Carolina today, a Democrat really can’t vote for a Republican at the state level. Even if the GOP candidate is supposedly a moderate, in the GOP moderate isn’t all that moderate.
    Plus why send even a good candidate to the legislature if this will help the Republicans keep a majority?
    They were wise indeed to eliminate voting for a party ticket on the ballot.

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