Skip to main content

Electoral Accountability for State Legislative Roll Calls and Ideological Representation


Theories of electoral accountability predict that legislators will receive fewer votes if they fail to represent their districts. To determine whether this prediction applies to state legislators, I conduct two analyses that evaluate the extent to which voters sanction legislators who cast unpopular roll-call votes or provide poor ideological representation. Neither analysis, however, produces compelling evidence that elections hold most state legislators accountable. I discover that legislators do not face meaningful electoral consequences for their ideological representation, particularly in areas where legislators receive less media attention, have larger staffs, and represent more partisan districts. In a study of individual roll-call votes across 11 states, I furthermore find a weak relationship between legislators’ roll-call positions and election outcomes with voters rewarding or punishing legislators for only 4 of 30 examined roll calls. Thus, while state legislators wield considerable policymaking power, elections do not appear to hold many legislators accountable for their lawmaking.

Corresponding author
Steven Rogers is Assistant Professor, Saint Louis University, 125 McGannon Hall 3750 Lindell Blvd. St. Louis, MO 63108 (
Hide All

I thank Nolan McCarty, Larry Bartels, Josh Clinton, and Brandice Canes-Wrone for their guidance regarding this project. For helpful conversations, data assistance, and other support, I am additionally grateful to Michelle Anderson, Deborah Beim, Sarah Binder, Adam Bonica, Daniel Butler, Michael Davies, Carl Klarner, George Krause, Peter Koppstein, Boris Shor, Craig Volden, Jason Windett, the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, the National Committee for an Effective Congress, and numerous individuals from Secretaries’ of States offices or local boards of elections.

Hide All
Achen Christopher H. 1978. “Measuring Representation.” American Journal of Political Science 22 (August): 475510.
Aldrich John H., and Coleman Battista James S.. 2002. “Conditional Party Government in the States.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (January): 164–72.
Ansolabehere Stephen, and Jones Philip Edward. 2010. “Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (3): 583–97.
Ansolabehere Stephen, Snyder James M., and Stewart Charles. 2001. “Candidate Positioning in U.S. House Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 45 (January): 136–59.
Anzia Sarah F., and Jackman Molly C.. 2013. “Legislative Organization and the Second Face of Power: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures.” Journal of Politics 75 (01): 210–24.
Arnold R. Douglas. 1992. The Logic of Congressional Action. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Arnold R. Douglas. 2006. Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bender Bruce, and Lott John R.. 1996. “Legislator Voting and Shirking: A Critical Review of the Literature.” Public Choice 87 (1/2): 67100.
Birkhead Nathaniel A. 2015. “The Role of Ideology in State Legislative Elections.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40 (1): 5582.
Bovitz Gregory L., and Carson Jamie L.. 2006. “Position-Taking and Electoral Accountability in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Political Research Quarterly 59 (2): 297312.
Bowen Daniel C., and Greene Zachary. 2014. “Should We Measure Professionalism with an Index? A Note on Theory and Practice in State Legislative Professionalism Research.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly (July): 277–96.
Brady David W., Fiorina Morris P., and Wilkins Arjun S.. 2011. “The 2010 Elections: Why Did Political Science Forecasts Go Awry?PS: Political Science & Politics 44 (April): 247–50.
Broockman David, and Skovron Christopher. “What Politicians Believe about their Constituents: Asymmetric Misperceptions and Prospects for Constituency Control.” Political Representation: Fifty Years After Miller & Stokes Conference, 14 Feb 2013, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. Conference Presentation.
Broockman David, Carnes Nicholas, Crowder-Meyer Melody, and Skovron Christopher. 2012. “The 2012 National Candidate Study.”
Canes-Wrone Brandice, Brady David W., and Cogan John F.. 2002. “Out of Step, Out of Office: Electoral Accountability and House Members’ Voting.” American Political Science Review 96 (01): 127–40.
Carey John M., Niemi Richard G., and Lynda Powell W.. 2000. “Incumbency and the Probability of Reelection in State Legislative Elections.” Journal of Politics 62 (3): 671700.
Carson Jamie L., Koger Gregory, Lebo Matthew J., and Young Everett. 2010. “The Electoral Costs of Party Loyalty in Congress.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (3): 598616.
Clark John A. 1996. “Congressional Salaries and the Politics of Unpopular Votes.” American Politics Research 24 (April): 150–68.
Cox Gary W., and McCubbins Mathew D.. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Cox Gary W., Kousser Thad, and McCubbins Mathew D.. 2010. “Party Power or Preferences? Quasi-Experimental Evidence from American State Legislatures.” Journal of Politics 72 (03): 799811.
Cox Gary W., and McCubbins Mathew D.. 2005. Setting the Agenda: Responsible Party Government in the U.S. House of Representatives. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Delli Carpini, Keeter M. X., and Kennamer J. D.. 1994. “Effects of the News Media Environment on Citizen Knowledge of State Politics and Government.” Journalism Quarterly 71 (2): 443456.
DiCamillo Mark, and Field Mervin. 2008. Technical Report 2262 Field Research Corportation.
Dorroh Jennifer. 2009.“Statehouse Exodus.” American Journalism Review 1 Apr. 2009: 30-35. Print.
Downs Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. 1st ed. New York: Harper and Row.
Enda Jodi, Eva Matsa Katerina, and Boyles Jan Lauren. 2014. Pew Research Center, July 2014, “America's Shifting Statehouse Press”.
Erikson Robert S., Wright Gerald C., and McIver John P.. 1994. Statehouse Democracy: Public Opinion and Policy in the American States. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Fearon James. 1999. “Electoral Accountability and the Control of Politicians: Selecting Good Types versus Sanctioning Poor Performance.” In Democracy, Accountability, and Representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fenno Richard F. 1978. Home Style: House Members in their Districts. New York, NY: Little, Brown.
Ferejohn John. 1986. “Incumbent Performance and Electoral Control.” Public Choice 50 (1): 525.
Ferejohn John. 1998. “A Tale of Two Congresses: Social Policy in the Clinton Years.” In The Social Divide, ed. Weir Margaret. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 4981.
Fraga Bernard. 2011. “Voting Costs and Voter Turnout in Competitive Elections.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 5 (July): 339–56.
Gerber Elisabeth R. 1996a. “Legislative Response to the Threat of Popular Initiatives.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (1): 99128.
Gerber Elisabeth R. 1996b. “Legislatures, Initiatives, and Representation: The Effects of State Legislative Institutions on Policy.” Political Research Quarterly 49 (June): 263–86.
Gierzynski, Anthony, and David Breaux. 1996. “Legislative Elections and the Importance of Money.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 21 (3): 337–57.
Gimpel James G., Kaufmann Karen M., and Pearson-Merkowitz Shanna. 2007. “Battleground States versus Blackout States: The Behavioral Implications of Modern Presidential Campaigns.” Journal of Politics 69 (3): 786–97.
Hall Richard L., and Wayman Frank W.. 1990. “Buying Time: Moneyed Interests and the Mobilization of Bias in Congressional Committees.” The American Political Science Review 84 (September): 797820.
Hogan Robert E. 2004. “Challenger Emergence, Incumbent Success, and Electoral Accountability in State Legislative Elections.” Journal of Politics 66 (November): 1283–303.
Hogan Robert E. 2008. “Policy Responsiveness and Incumbent Reelection in State Legislatures.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (October): 858–73.
Holbrook Thomas M., and Tidmarch Charles M.. 1991. “Sophomore Surge in State Legislative Elections, 1968–86.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 16 (1): 4963.
Jacobson Gary C. 1993. “Deficit-Cutting Politics and Congressional Elections.” Political Science Quarterly 108 (October): 375402.
Jacobson Gary C. 1996. “The 1994 House Elections in Perspective.” Political Science Quarterly 111 (2): 203–23.
Jacobson Gary C. 2011. “The Republican Resurgance in 2010.” Political Science Quarterly 126 (1): 2752.
Justice Glen. 2015. “States Six Times More Productive Than Congress.” CQ Roll Call: StateTrackers (January).
Kaplan Martin, Goldstein Kenneth R., and Hale Matthew. 2003. Local TV News Coverage of the 2002 General Election. Technical report USC Annengerg School and University of Wisconsin.
Kingdon John W. 1989. Congressmen's Voting Decisions. 3rd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Klarner Carl, Berry William D., Carsey Thomas, Jewell Malcolm, Niemi Richard, Powell Lynda, and Snyder James. 2013. State Legislative Election Returns (1967–2010). ICPSR34297-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2013-01-11.
Ladewig Jeffrey W. 2010. “Ideological Polarization and the Vanishing of Marginals: Retrospective Roll-Call Voting in the U.S. Congress.” The Journal of Politics 72 (02): 499512.
Layton Charles, and Dorroh Jennifer. 2002. “The Sad State.” American Journalism Review (June): 18–33.
Lewis Jeffery B., and Gerber Elisabeth R.. 2004. “Beyond the Median: Voter Preferences, District Heterogeneity, and Representation.” Journal of Political Economy 112 (6): 1364–83.
Lipset Seymour Martin. 1997. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W.W. Norton.
Lipsitz Keena. 2011. Competitive Elections and the American Voter. Reprint edition ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lyons Jeffrey, Jaeger William P., and Wolak Jennifer. 2013. “The Roots of Citizens’ Knowledge of State Politics.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 13 (June): 183202.
Matthews Donald R., and Stimson James A. 1975. Yeas and Nays: Normal Decision-Making in the US. House of Representatives. New York, NY: Wiley.
Matsusaka John G. 2001. “Problems with a Methodology Used to Evaluate the Voter Initiative.” Journal of Politics 63 (4): 1250–6.
Mayhew David R. 1974a. Congress: the Electoral Connection. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Mayhew David R. 1974b. “Congressional Elections: The Case of the Vanishing Marginals.” Polity 6 (April): 295317.
McCarty Nolan, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. 2009. “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?American Journal of Political Science 53 (July): 666–80.
Nyhan Brendan, McGhee Eric, Sides John, Masket Seth, and Greene Steven. 2012. “One Vote Out of Step? The Effects of Salient Roll Call Votes in the 2010 Election.” American Politics Research 40 (September): 844–79.
Patterson Samuel C., Ripley Randall B., and Quinlan Stephen V.. 1992. “Citizens’ Orientations toward Legislatures: Congress and the State Legislature.” The Western Political Quarterly 45 (June): 315–38.
Rabinowitz George, and Macdonald Stuart Elaine. 1989. “A Directional Theory of Issue Voting.” The American Political Science Review 83 (1): 93121.
Rhode David. 1991. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House. 1st edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rogers Steven. 2015. “Strategic Challenger Entry in a Federal System: The Role of Economic and Political Conditions in State Legislative Competition.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 40 (November): 539–70.
Serra George, and Pinney Neil. 2004. “Casework, Issues, and Voting in State Legislative Elections.” The Journal of Legislative Studies 10 (4): 3246.
Shor Boris, and McCarty Nolan. 2011. “The Ideological Mapping of American Legislatures.” American Political Science Review 105 (03): 530–51.
Smith Daniel A., and Tolbert Caroline. 2004. Educated by Initiative the Effects of Direct Democracy on Citizens and Political Organizations in the American States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Snyder James. 1996. “Constituency Preferences: California ballot Propositions, 1974–1990.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 21 (4): 463–88.
Songer Donald R. 1984. “Government Closest to the People: Constituent Knowledge in State & National Politics.” Polity 17 (December): 387–95.
Squire Peverill. 2000. “Uncontested Seats in State Legislative Elections.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 25 (February): 131–46.
Squire Peverill. 2007. “Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 7 (2): 211–27.
Tausanovitch Chris, and Warshaw Christopher. 2013. “Measuring Constituent Policy Preferences in Congress, State Legislatures, and Cities.” Journal of Politics 75 (02): 330–42.
Weberg Brian. 2016. Size of State Legislative Staff. Technical Report, National Conference of State Legislatures.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Rogers supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (299 KB)
299 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 37
Total number of PDF views: 553 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1387 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 29th June 2017 - 19th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.