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10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About State Politics

Hispanics are—and will continue to be—significantly underrepresented, open primaries attract more extreme voters, and other lessons from the 14th annual State Politics and Policy Conference.
U.S. Capitol building. (Photo: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock)

U.S. Capitol building. (Photo: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock)

I just came back from the 14th annual State Politics and Policy Conference, held this year at Indiana University. What’s so great about this conference is that the presenters are usually some of the smartest and most sophisticated members of the political science discipline and their research truly informs how we can reform American governmental institutions to improve democracy. However, much of this research also shows that conventional wisdom about what works and what doesn’t is completely unsubstantiated.

I figured I would share some of the more interesting things I learned this year, and I’ve provided links to the papers that are available online for those interested in reading them in full. (For 10 takeaways from last year’s conference, see Seth Masket’s write-up here.)

01.Despite projections that they will comprise almost 30 percent of the population in 2040, Hispanics will likely hold only six Senate seats. (Nicholas Goedert)

02. Corporate contributions to state legislators pay off. State governments give out around 100 billion dollars a year in corporate subsidies, and this number has increased drastically since 2000. But the amount is largely influenced by campaign contributions from businesses. As it turns out, the more state candidates receive in contributions from businesses, the more subsides the government gives out to them. (Joshua Jansa and Virginia Gray)

03. When voters are able to cast ballots on specific policy issues instead of just candidates, more people turn out to vote. (Mike Binder and Matthew Childers)

04. When a state allows voters to place policy issues on the ballot, state legislatures are more likely to pass policies that the citizens they represent desire. (Daniel Lewis and Matthew Jacobsmeier)

05. According to their state party platforms, the two major political parties are not as polarized as we think. On most policy issues, the Democrats and Republicans take fairly similar public positions—even on highly controversial issues like gun control. (Daniel Coffey)

06.In states with more union members, the disabled are more likely to receive job training programs, but they are less likely to retain a job after completing the training than in states with fewer unionized workers. (Latasha Chaffin)

07. Counter to the implied logic of pundits and reformers, the source of campaign funds exerts little influence on legislative behavior. State legislators do not vote any differently (nor are they any less polarized) either on the floor or in committee when their campaigns are financed through tax dollars than when campaign dollars come from private sources. (Justin Kirkland and Jeffrey Harden)

08. Reformers have long argued that “open” primaries that allow independent voters to weigh in on the choice of candidates for the general election would increase how many moderates vote in primary elections (and as a result, decrease how many ideologically extreme candidates appear on the general election ballot). However, the opposite seems to be true: Open primaries have more extreme voters and closed primaries have more moderate voters showing up to the polls. (Barbara Norrander and Jay Wendland)

09. Preferential voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates instead of just cast one vote for one person have been adopted by several cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and San Francisco, California. This type of voting seems to alter the style of the campaign: Candidates are much less likely to go negative and instead run positive campaigns, and voters are more satisfied with how the campaigns are run. (Todd Donovan, Caroline Tolbert, and Kellen Gracey)

10. Term limits may not be as effective at reforming state legislatures as reformers thought. When states impose term limits on their legislators, more Democratic women but far fewer Republican womenrun for legislative seats. So term limits do seem to slightly increase the number of women in office, as reformers have argued they would, but this increase has partisan consequences. (Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, Lyke Thompson, and Charles D. Elder)