Saturday, April 27, 2013

State Legislatures

First, a summary of how state legislatures do elections because it is detailed. 49 out of 50 states in the United States have a bicameral legislature currently (all but Nebraska). The way that these chambers are run differs state to state, but there are big similarities across state lines. There are three systems currently in use in state legislatures. 39 states (except Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia) have a simple yet ineffective system of having one representative per district, and two sets of districts, one for their upper house and one for the lower house. Every state has one representative per district in their upper (smaller) house. However, 11 states break this trend. I haven't done the analysis yet on the efficacy of each election and how many are accurate to the statewide voter choice, but hopefully I will someday. 5 states (Arizona, Idaho, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Washington) have one representative per district for their upper house (as normal) but two representatives per district for their lower house. How they vote for them varies, some are block voting (where people vote for as many candidates as there are seats and the two candidates with the most votes win) and some have separate elections for the two seats.

Before I describe the other districts, both methods present a problem. If you have the same population voting for these candidates and they can't rank their choices, you run into the spoiler effect and wasted votes. What ends up happening is you don't have a representation proportional to the choices of the district and you have usually one party win all the seats in a single district. Except for an example (Vermont) most states have only Democrats and Republicans in their state legislatures. The districts are regularly redrawn and you run into the problem of Gerrymandering.

South Dakota and Vermont residents could have either one or two representatives in their district. This doesn't solve the spoiler effect. They are all proportional in population per representative, but has all the problems of first past the post.

The remaining three states (Maryland, New Hampshire, Virginia, and West Virginia) have block voting, which is when you have a list of your candidates and you vote for as many candidates as there are seats, but what makes them different is that there is a large range between how many representatives you might vote on. You could represented by as few as one, or for some people in New Hampshire could have as many as 11 representatives. The population per representative(s) is all proportional, but since it is block voting, it doesn't increase the chance of third parties being represented and doesn't solve the spoiler effect, which means votes are wasted. They are on the right track, but block voting is not good enough to have a truly fair election system.

One question I have struggled with is why we have two state houses in all but one state. The disadvantages I can see is it takes legislation longer to get through government,  and the upper house always has the spoiler effect because it is a one representative per district. This is a historical leftover. In New York, the two houses were similar to Parliament and (at the time) our Congress in that the Senate was elected by owners of land, and the House of Representatives represented everybody. In Washington State the House was elected every two years and the Senate every four. So, depending on when the different states entered the Union changes the reason why all but one has two houses.

I see no particular advantage today in maintaining having two houses, and see a few disadvantages  It takes legislation longer to get through (which takes money, because they get paid to be there, and many states have time limits as to how many days they may be in session) and this can put good legislation on the back burner in order to pass a budget or some other duty that is routine and forgettable. If the representatives really represented the opinions of their constituents than there is no reason why it should take longer than reasonable to pass legislation that the people want to be passed.

The history of bicameralism goes back to the history of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. England's Parliament was established on 15 June 1215, and consisted of lords only as described by the Magna Carta which seriously limited the King's power. They evolved out of the Feudal system as members of the higher levels yet below nobility desired to have more power, and councils were formed which gave them more power. Parliament's main power was to levy taxes, among other powers. King Edward I was trying to unite the British Isles and parliament's power grew considerably. The House of Commons became an independent house from the House of Lords in 1341 under King Edward III. As the United Kingdom took over the British Isles over the next hundred years Parliament grew as an institution and bicameralism took shape. I will do another post on this someday... it's complicated.

Then when we get to the United States founding we have the famous Grand Compromise which created our form of bicameralism, with a Senate which was originally voted on by State Legislatures, and the House of Representatives was voted into power by whoever the State Legislature deems fit to vote (and still is). The New York example demonstrates how the two houses were set up similar to Congress and Parliament. Each state has a different story, so to generalize would be inaccurate. But what is important is that all but one state today has a state legislature.

Should we move to unicameral legislatures? From the point of view of making sure that all views are represented it would make sense to have only one chamber and have the members be elected using the Single Transferable Vote method which is the most accurate way to set up a legislature. Having only one representative per district for the upper house has no advantage in terms of the majority criterion of elections and hurts the possibility that a third party could be represented. This would be easily remedied by having both houses be elected using Single Transferable Vote, but then what would the point of having two houses be? Arizona, Washington and other states that have two representatives per district in one house and one in the other house don't see an increase in representation of minorities and see the same two parties again and again. With only two seats it is difficult to get more than two parties represented, and having one seat makes it practically impossible in most cases.  It would make sense to have multiple representatives for each district and have them be elected by Single Transferable Vote which is the best way to guarantee that they will represent the people.

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