Some of the Major Differences in State Governments and Politics

State governments have all sorts of ways in which they differ structurally and functionally from each other and from the federal government, sometimes wildly. What seems normal for one state government may seem completely bizarre to another. Here we will briefly discuss some of the major ways that the politics of each state differ, though by no means is it a comprehensive list: (1) types of primaries, (2) provisions concerning voting and registration, (3) term lengths and term limits for elected officials, (4) a couple of major differences in Nebraska’s government, (5) single-member districts vs. multi-member districts, and (6) when states hold general elections for state offices.

Types of Primaries

There is a wide variety of types of primaries to determine candidates for general elections. Seven major types, in fact: closed, semi-closed, open, semi-open, top-two, jungle, and ranked choice. Within states, there may be different primary types depending on if it is a presidential, congressional, state, county, or municipal race. Below is a description of each type of primary.

Closed primary: In closed primaries, only members of a particular party can vote in that party’s primary if they have one. No-party affiliates (NPAs) can only vote in primaries that are non-partisan in nature.

Semi-closed primary: Like a closed primary, members of a party can only vote in that party’s primary. However, NPAs can choose which of the party’s primaries to vote in (provided that that state party has allowed for unaffiliated voters to participate, as in a few states only one major party makes their primary open to them).

Open primary: Voters can vote in whichever primary they want regardless of their affiliation (or lack thereof), choosing privately which party primary ballot to take.

Semi-open primary: It is basically the same as an open primary, except that which ballot is chosen has to be publicly declared in some way instead of being a private decision.

Top-two primary: All of the candidates for a given office are placed on the primary ballot. The candidates receiving the most and second-most votes move on to the general election, regardless of how many votes the top finisher received.

Jungle primary: This functions similarly to a top-two primary, where the top two finishers in vote totals move on to the general election. However, if the candidate receiving the most votes received a majority of the total votes cast in the primary, then that candidate wins the race outright without the need for a general election contest.

Ranked-choice primary: Voters rank their choices based on preference (who they want to win the most, their second choice, their third choice, etc.). If a candidate receives a majority of the votes in the first round of voting, that candidate wins the election. If no one receives a majority, however, then the voting moves to a second round, and the candidate receiving the least first-preference votes is eliminated. The eliminated candidate’s first-preference votes are eliminated and second-preference choices are then counted. If a candidate still does not win a majority, this process is repeated for a third-round. Ballot counting continues until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.

Voting and Registration

The states have widely differing methods of when and how to vote, along with how they deal with voter registration. Electoral reforms over the past three to four decades have brought about early voting, absentee voting, and vote-by-mail provisions, though not all states use these methods. In many places, these ways of voting have become increasingly popular.

Early voting: Early voting allows voters to cast a ballot in the time prior to an election. Each state and counties within states will have differing lengths of time for when early voting is held. Currently, 34 states and D.C. permit early voting.¹

Absentee voting: Absentee voting lets voters request a ballot to be mailed to them, which they fill in and can either mail back or drop off at an appropriate place. There are two types of absentee voting: excuse and no-excuse. As no-excuse absentee voting implies, anyone can request an absentee ballot. Some states, however, require a valid excuse, such as having to work during polling hours, prolonged absence from the county one is registered to vote in, or an illness or injury. A total of 47 states and D.C. allow for some measure of voting.²

Vote-by-Mail (VBM): A type of absentee voting, 22 states have provisions for certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. In Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), and Colorado (2013), all elections are held entirely by mail.³

Registering under an affiliation: Most states have voters register under an unaffiliation (or at least take the label of “NPA,” “unaffiliated,” or “unenrolled”), but there are some states where this is not required. In fact, 20 states do not have this requirement, either making it optional or not registering them under any affiliation at all.⁴

An interesting side note: Alaska is unique in that, while it does let voters register under particular affiliations or not affiliate at all, there is also provision for being an “undeclared” voter. Undeclared voters are those who have not made any statement whatsoever about party identification, including being an NPA. They can tend to vote with one party or split votes across parties, but they have not made a specific declaration of what they want to register as.

Same-Day Registration: In most states, one must be a registered as a voter by a certain date in order to be considered eligible to vote in a given election, and registered voters can only vote in a particular party’s primary if they are registered with that party by a certain date. In 18 states and D.C., however, there are provisions for same-day registration, which allows people to register and vote at the same time.⁵

Term Lengths and Term Limits

For state legislatures, most states do not impose term limits on its members. Currently, 15 states have term limits on state legislatures, and they have gubernatorial term limits as well.⁶ Of the 7,383 total state legislative seats, 1,930 are term-limited (562 in state senates, 1,368 in state houses).⁷ Term limits vary from state to state, but there are three basic types of limits:

  • (1) Consecutive limits, where legislators can serve up to a certain length of time and run again after spending a term outside of that office
  • (2) Lifetime limits, where legislators can serve up to a certain length of time but then cannot run for that office or in that legislature ever again
  • (3) Limits with a “time out” afterwards, where legislators can serve up to a certain length of time, but then cannot run again for that office for a certain period of time

Term lengths vary by state and by chamber.

State houses: State house term lengths are always either two or four years, with the vast majority being two years. Only Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and North Dakota have state house term lengths of four years.⁸

State senates: State senate term lengths can also be two or four years, but there are also some that follow a 2–4–4 method. A 2–4–4 is where senators, depending on when legislative reapportionments occur following a U.S. census, senators will have two-year terms followed by a couple of four-year terms.⁹ Senates with four-year terms and those in a 2–4–4 system sometimes have all of their seats up for election every general election, while others stagger them out so that some seats are up at one general election and the rest are up at the next general election.

Governors: In the case of governors, 36 states impose gubernatorial term limits.¹⁰ Similarly to state legislatures, each state has different impositions on term limits. Some gubernatorial offices have no term limits, some have consecutive term limits, and others have a lifetime limit.

The Nebraska Exception to State Government Structure

Every state has a bicameral (meaning two chambers: a house and a senate), partisan legislature — except one. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with just a senate, and every legislator is nominally nonpartisan (although legislators tends to affiliate with one of the two parties). This change to a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature was instituted in a 1934 amendment to the Nebraska State Constitution.¹¹

Single Member Districts (SMDs) Versus Multi-Member Districts (MMDs)

States also vary in their usage of SMDs versus MMDs for their legislatures. MMDs elect multiple members to represent them, while SMDs only elect one per district. While SMDs are the most widely-used, 10 states use MMDs for at least their state houses (two of them also using MMDs for state senates).¹² There are also several different forms of MMDs, with different provisions for how to vote in them and how candidates run in them.

A couple of examples to demonstrate how some types of MMDs work are the Maryland and Washington State Houses. The Maryland House of Delegates has three representatives per house district. The top-three vote-getters win seats in that district, and voters have three votes to use to elect them. The Washington State House has two representatives per district. However, candidates must choose which specific seat to run for (seat a or b), and voters will choose representatives for both seats.

General Election Years for State Offices

Depending on term lengths for certain state offices, most states will have those elections during presidential years, midterms, or both. Most of them have elections for their major state-level offices such as governor held in midterms, but there are some that have them during midterms. In the case of Vermont, governors are elected every two years, so they have major elections for both general and midterm years. A total of 36 state governors are up for election this midterm.

There are also a few states, however, that have state legislative elections in odd-numbered years. Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia all have elections in these “off-years.” For some of these states at least, it appears that it is due to their state constitutions being adopted in odd-numbered years and subsequently holding elections on odd-numbered years as a result.¹³

States also vary quite a bit by which types of state executive offices (e.g. attorney general, secretary of state, auditor) can be voted on or are appointed, or even if they exist in certain states. States also differ in whether they use state party conventions or primaries (or both) to determine general election candidates.

There are plenty of other differences in how these states operate politically, but such a list would be far too large for this post. This was more to give a sense of just how greatly states can vary in how their governments function. Hopefully this article has given some valuable insight into that matter.

  1. Ballotpedia. “Early voting.” (accessed September 17, 2018).
  2. Ballotpedia. “Absentee voting.” (accessed September 17, 2018).
  3. National Conference of State Legislatures. “All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-by-Mail).” (accessed September 17, 2018).
  4. Independent Voter Project. “State-by-State Primary Elections Map.” (accessed September 17, 2018).
  5. Ballotpedia. “Same-day voter registration.” (accessed September 17, 2018).
  6. U.S. Term Limits. “State Legislative Term Limits.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  7. Ballotpedia. “State legislatures with term limits.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  8. Ballotpedia. “Length of terms of state representatives.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  9. Ballotpedia. “Length of terms of state senators.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  10. Ballotpedia. “States with gubernatorial term limits.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  11. Nebraska Legislature. “History of the Nebraska Unicameral.” (accessed September 18, 2018).
  12. Ballotpedia. “State legislative chambers that use multi-member districts.” (accessed September 20, 2018).
  13. The Voting News. “Why do Four States Have Odd-Year Elections?” (accessed September 20, 2018).

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