How Effective are America’s State Legislators?

craig volden CEL

The Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) has compiled a massive database to measure the effectiveness of nearly every state legislator in the U.S. Based on CEL’s trusted methodology developed a decade ago to rank the effectiveness of members of Congress, the State Legislative Effectiveness Scores (SLES) project is the first to collect this kind of data at the state level in a comprehensive fashion.

As with the congressional data, CEL researchers hope to use their findings to work with state lawmakers in order to improve the policy-making process.

“We’re drawn to the combination of research and engagement, with the opportunity to use insights from this data to help lawmakers become more effective and inform the efforts of good governance partners,” said Craig Volden, a professor of public policy and politics at the UVA Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. He is also a co-founder and co-director of CEL, a partnership between Batten and Vanderbilt University.

Volden made the announcement Saturday at the annual State Politics and Policy Conference, part of the American Political Science Association, which drew more than 140 academics from across the country to Grounds to share their most recent research on a wide range of state lawmaking topics. It was hosted by CEL, the Batten School and the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, with support from UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and the Quantitative Collaborative.

“This dataset allows extensive new research opportunities on legislative politics, public policy and representative democracy,” Volden said.

Over the last several years, Volden and a team of CEL-affiliated researchers examined information from 1,032 legislative sessions from 97 state legislative chambers, two for each state. (Nebraska has only one chamber, and data from Kansas was not available.) For the years 1993 through 2018, they looked at five stages of bill development -- from introduction through various committee votes to passage into law – and weighted the significance of the bills at three levels to arrive at more than 80,300 scores.

Among their initial findings:

  • Political moderates tend to be highly effective;
  • Lawmakers in the party holding a narrow majority dismiss minority bills;
  • How the legislative institution is designed significantly influences where lawmaking powers are centered; and
  • Effective state lawmakers run for Congress more frequently than their less effective peers, and in Congress, continue to be effective lawmakers.

Volden outlined the center’s future plans for the state data project. Over the next several months, CEL plans to add data from 2019 to the present, and then regularly update the SLES within a few months of the end of each legislative term. In addition, CEL will sponsor future conferences to continue disseminating the data, as well as create guides and orientations for new state legislators.  CEL will also fund working papers, research grants, post-doctoral students and faculty affiliates to continue gathering and interpreting the data.

In addition, CEL hopes to develop an interactive website for researchers, lawmakers, the media and the public to easily search the data, similar to the congressional database on its website.

See the full agenda of the 2024 State Politics and Policy Conference which lists some 140 political science academics from colleges and universities around the country.


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