Variations in State Legislatures

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Photo source: Florida Trend. “The 2016 Florida Legislature: Once more with feeling | Advocacy 2016.”

State governments, like the federal government, have three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Beyond that, however, there aren’t a whole lot of similarities besides some broad comparisons. There is a massive variety of differences between state governments and their federal counterpart, especially in the legislative branch. One who lives in one state could find themselves absolutely baffled at how different another state’s legislature operates.

With the exception of the unicameral Nebraska Legislature (which has only a state senate but no state house), all of the state legislatures have a house and a senate just like Congress. Many of the attributes beyond that, however, are vastly different as state governments widely differ from each other. Today, we will cover some of the main differences.

Term Limits

Most states, like Congress, do not have term limits. There are 15 state legislatures, however, that do: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.¹ ² Term limits apply to 562 of the 1,972 (28.5%) state senate seats and 1,368 of the 5,411 (25.3%) of the state house seats in the country.¹ Some of these term limits are cumulative, where legislators can serve up to a maximum amount of years for one or both chambers, after which that legislator is no longer allowed to serve. Others only have consecutive limits, where legislators have to sit out one term for a chamber after being term-limited but can run for that office again afterward. Six other states used to have term limits, but these were either overturned by state supreme courts or legislative repeals.¹

The push for state legislative term limits began in the 1990s, partly out of the concern that turnover was too low and legislators were becoming too entrenched in government. Regardless of whether the concern was founded or not, turnover used to be significantly higher. Turnover started to steadily decline after the 1930s. Turnover was about 50% in the 1930s, dropping to around 25% in the early 1970s and then below that into the 1980s.³ In more recent times, the incumbency advantage for Congress is well-documented, with returning legislator percentages in the 80s and 90s ranges. The incumbency advantage for state legislators isn’t quite as pronounced, but still fairly substantial.

There is a normative debate about whether high or low turnover is good or bad, with many arguments laid out for both sides. Proponents point to high turnover as a way to keep legislators from being too entrenched in government, while opponents point to high turnover leading to inexperienced legislators replacing experienced ones. Such a debate is outside the scope of this post, but they both bring up valid points.

Single-Member Districts (SMDs) vs. Multi-Member Districts (MMDs)

It may come as a surprise to those living in states with one legislative member per district, but there are some states that have at least one chamber with legislative districts that contain more than one legislative member representing them — 10 to be exact. Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia all use multi-member districts (MMDs) for their state houses. Only Vermont and West Virginia also have MMDs for their state senates.⁴ The number of members per district can be fixed or vary from district to district, with states having as low as two members per district to 11 (which New Hampshire has for at least one of its districts).

There are five major types of MMDs, although one is no longer used. Below are their descriptions from Ballotpedia.⁴

Bloc: free-for-all — voters receive as many votes as there are open seats, and can vote once for a particular candidate. All votes must be used.

Bloc with partial abstention: Same as bloc, except voters can elect not to use all of their votes.

Cumulative: Voters are free to use their votes however they wish. This is not used in state legislative elections at present; in 1982, Illinois was the last state to abandon the system.

Staggered: Two legislators represent the same district with elections happening in different years.

Seat/post: Instead of running in a pool of candidates with the aim of finishing strongly enough, candidates run for a specific seat as in a single-member district.

As with term limits, there are both proponents and opponents to the use of MMDs instead of SMDs. Proponents say that MMDs tend to produce more representative government as there will potentially be more than one party to better represent everyone and that the number of members per district can change instead of having to redraw district boundaries as the result of population changes. Opponents say that MMDs dilute the relationship between officeholders and voters as well as dilute the individual accountability of officeholders since there are two or more of them in a district.⁵

Full-Time vs. Part-Time, Salaries, and Staff Sizes

Being a legislator is hard work, but not all states consider it a full-time job. There isn’t necessarily a clear definition for what makes a legislative position full-time or part-time. There is also a “hybrid” category and variation within full-time or part-time. According to NCSL figures, 4 states are full-time, 6 states are full-time “lite,” 26 states are hybrids, 10 states are part-time “lite,” and 4 states are part-time.⁶ Even part-time legislators spend a significant amount of time on the job.

Full-time versus part-time legislative offices differ on time on the job, salaries, and staff sizes. The NCSL defines each of these by the following descriptions, along with averages for each category:⁶

Time on the job: “estimated proportion of a full-time job spent on legislative work including time in session, constituent service, interim committee work, and election campaigns” (84% for full-time/full-time lite, 74% for hybrids, 57% for part-time/part-time lite)

Compensation: “estimated average annual compensation of legislators including salary, per diem, and any other unvouchered expense payments” ($82,358 for full-time/full-time lite, $41,110 for hybrids, $18,449 for part-time/part-time lite)

Staff sizes: “average number of staff — partisan and nonpartisan — working for the legislature” (1,250 for full-time/full-time lite, 469 for hybrids, 160 for part-time/part-time lite

You can find data on comparisons of state legislative salaries here on the Ballotpedia website.

You can find more data on legislator compensation here on the NCSL website.


Closely tied to the previous section is professionalism. There is no agreement on what exactly constitutes this concept, with different measures being formulated since at least the 1970s.⁷ They all try to get at the same basic idea, but have different ways of getting there.

One such measure is called the Squire Index. Created by Peverill Squire, the index basically measures the function of Congress as a baseline to compare state legislatures with on three attributes: salary and benefits, time demands of service, and staff and resources. These components have different implications for individual legislators and a legislature as a whole (for example, salary and benefits for individual legislators increase their incentive to serve and lead to longer terms, while for the legislature as a whole it creates a more experienced body of members because of those longer tenures).⁷ A score of 1 indicates perfect similarity to Congress on these attributes, while a score of 0 indicates total difference.

Given that his article in which he revisited his index was just over a decade ago, the years that Squire studied were not that recent (2003 was the last year he measured). Thus, it is possible that there has been some significant change in index scores and rankings of the states. For what it is worth, the top five states in professionalism by this index in 2003 were California (1st), New York (2nd), Wisconsin (3rd), Massachusetts (4th), and Michigan (5th). The bottom five were Maine (46th), Montana (47th), Alabama (48th), Utah (49th), and South Dakota (50th).⁷

There are plenty of other differences between state legislatures, of course. Some of them are major ones too, such as the partisan composition and the amount of members in each. Hopefully they will be covered in a future post.

  1. Ballotpedia. “State legislatures with term limits.” (accessed November 14, 2018).
  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. May 13, 2015. “The Term-Limited States.” (accessed November 14, 2018).
  3. Yogesh Uppal and Amihai Glazer. 2015. “Legislative Turnover, Fiscal Policy, and Economic Growth: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures.” Economic Inquiry 53 (1): 91–107.
  4. Ballotpedia. “State Legislative Districts.” (accessed November 14, 2018).
  5. Ace Project. “Multimember Districts: Advantages and Disadvantages.” (accessed November 15, 2018).
  6. National Conference of State Legislatures. June 14, 2017. “Full- and Part-Time Legislatures.” (accessed November 15, 2018).
  7. Peverill Squire. 2007. “Measuring State Legislative Professionalism: The Squire Index Revisited.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 7 (2): 211–227.

Written by

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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