Study considers impact of low competition in state legislative elections as a factor in "policy shirking"

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June 29, 2011

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By: Leslie Graves

"Policy shirking" and low rates of electoral competitiveness may be related, according to an academic paper by James Coleman Battista, Joshua J. Dyck and Megan Gall of the Department of Political Science at the University of Buffalo.[1] Battista, Dyck and Gall presented their paper, "The Flow of Representation: Policy Responsiveness in State Legislatures", on June 3, 2011 at the Eleventh Annual State Politics and Policy Conference at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.[2] The State Politics and Policy Conference is a section of the American Political Science Association.[3]

According to the paper, "Shirking is defined simply as when a legislator follows his/her own legislative or policy preference, even or especially when that preference is inconsistent with the preference of his/her constituents."

To the extent that "policy shirking" exists at the state legislative level, Battista, Dyck and Gall suggest that it is best thought of as the result of two factors: ability and motive.[1] When it comes to the ability of a state legislator to shirk, factors that should be considered are:

"Ability refers to the circumstances in the legislative process that allow representatives to shirk. The ability to shirk is clearly met. First, the American mass public seems to know little about their state governments. In a survey of Ohio, Patterson, Ripley, and Quinlan (1992) found that 72 percent of respondents could not name their state legislator. More recently, an NCSL sponsored survey found that only 33 percent of respondents over 26 years old could correctly identify even the partisan control of their state legislature.
Further, state legislative elections are rarely competitive, and frequently feature only one major party candidate on the ballot. In the 2010 elections, 32.7 percent of districts had only one major party candidate running. (Ballotpedia 2010) In 18 of the 46 states holding legislative elections in 2010, over 40 percent of seats faced no major-party challenge, and in only ten states was the proportion of uncontested seats lower than 20 percent. In such an environment, the ability to shirk with limited consequences seems clear."[1]

The Battista/Dyck/Gall citation to Ballotpedia refers to our 2010 study, 2010 state legislative elections analyzed using a Competitiveness Index.

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