Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 1: State legislative terms of office

The US House of Representatives stands out internationally as the having the shortest term of any national legislative chamber, being the only chamber with all seats up for re-election every two years. With that electoral cycle, it also holds elections more often than almost any elected chamber (a few other chambers hold elections every two years, but with staggered elections for a longer overall term).

[Note: For context, you might want to read the brief introductory post to this series.]

The vast majority of states follow the federal level in electing their lower house for a two-year term. Many states, especially in the original 13 and in the Northeast, used to have annual election, but those all switched to two-year terms at various points during the 19th century. Of the six states lower houses with four-year terms, two (North Dakota and Nebraska’s unicameral) elect half the seats every two years.

By contrast, the federal Senate’s 6-year term is emulated by no state upper house[1]. Most states Senates have a four-year term, which is usually staggered, with half the seats up every two years. Seven states alternate to accommodate the redistricting cycle, with every decade seeing two four-year terms and one two-year term[2]. However, almost a quarter of states (twelve) have biannual terms for both houses.

What does this mean for any reforms? Well, maybe the main thing is simply that there is a lot of work to do! Biannual terms are almost universal, and I suspect they help lower turnout and accountability to voters (though I’m sure interest groups love them) in addition to lowering the government’s effectiveness and time horizons. Another observation is that the staggered elections that exist in about two-thirds of the states could make PR harder to implement in those houses than in other places, at least without disrupting the existing electoral cycle. When staggering puts half the districts up for election, those districts are not necessarily geographically connected, which is a practical necessity if single-seat districts are to be merged to form multi-seat districts which can support PR; if staggered elections mean half the seats in each district are up each time, this means the districts are already larger and harder to make the argument for making even larger. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to combine the move to PR with an abolition of staggering (as well as of bicameralism, as I will no doubt explore in a future post) – my hunch is that most voters probably find it confusing; politicians are probably more likely to feel attached to it, but then again politicians probably have much bigger issues with PR than this one…

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about legislative term lengths in the states and what it might mean for reform? Or do you have any suggestions for future posts in this series? Please let me know in the comments!


[1] Although I was able to find a partial exception in Maryland’s Senate, which had five-year terms from 1776 until 1838, and then had 6-year terms with 1/3 elected every two until the term was shortened to 4 years in 1851.

[2] The fact that the other states don’t do this can often effectively mean district boundary changes leave a few voters without direct representation in the upper house for up to two years at a time!

30 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 1: State legislative terms of office

  1. This is a great blog series, JD. I look forward to seeing more. Definitely of interest to scholars of state politics. How much of this work will be connected to that literature? I don’t know it as well as I should.

    • Thank you Jack. I must admit I don’t know that literature very well either, but my impression is that there isn’t that much “New Institutional” work on comparative state institutions, at least not on the kind of institutions that comparativists like Matthew and I study (legislatures, electoral systems, executives etc.; I believe there’s much more on the ‘behaviour’ side of such topics, like legislative careers and campaigns). For example, when I wrote a research proposal on state executives, I could find very little work that wasn’t over 30 years old and that wasn’t either in a descriptive Old Institutionalist style or a Public Admin paper (I really couldn’t find an explanation for why there are still so many elected executive positions in almost every state). Of course, there are significant exceptions, such as the extensive work on term limits and gerrymandering. You may also know my colleague, Oakley Gordon’s work on voting in NH’s multi-seat districts? I’m not entirely sure if he has managed to publish it yet.

  2. At the local level, staggered terms are defended as a way of avoiding 100% turnover on elected councils and boards. I don’t know whether anyone thinks much about them at the state level, where rapid turnover of legisators is less likely. This argument for staggered terms would evaporate if PR were implemented. For that reason it is ironic that they are an obstacle to making PR work at the local level; on a five member council elected all at once, the threshold is about 17% but staggered terms makes it alternate between 25% and 33%. But proposing to eliminate staggered terms as part of a change to PR would almost certainly doom the whole proposal.

    • Yes, Bob. I have thought of that obstacle to local-level PR many times. I also agree that PR eliminates the main logic for staggering, although someone forgot to tell both Australians and Argentines that. I am referring, of course, to Australia’s Senate being PR with staggered terms, as is the Argentine Chamber of Deputies (the only “lower house” at national level that I am aware of with staggering).

      • Another ironic aspect of this situation is that the same political instincts that cause people to cling to staggered terms for local government also cause them to cling to term limits — which increase turnover by design.

      • Bob, why do you think a proposal to eliminate staggering would doom a PR proposal? I mean, I have some ideas of how it would complicate things, as I expressed above, but I feel that you might have more in mind that may not have occurred to me (especially as you put it so sharply).

    • What about Local Government in European countries where party lists are used to elected national parliaments?

      If the country in question is using PR at the national level, it must use PR at the local level perhaps being a closed or semi open list system, that would avoid problems of 100% turnover of local councils, so there is no need for staggered election, but local government issues isn’t party centric per se and is very different from the national or federal politics. STV is probably the best system for local government as it doesn’t assume parties exist or not, it would be okay to be used even if staggered into 2 and 3 seats rather than electing 5 at once, whatever it takes to get PR.

  3. In my opinion “staggered” comes in two varieties :
    A – all seats in some districts : Argentina, Chile, Czech Rep. (Belgium before WW1, Luxembourg until 1951)
    B – some seats in all districts : Brasil, Australia, Japan, Philippines

    In B) the whole country goed to the polls, but the magnitude is lowered.

    And the there is the mix of the two in the US senate : 1/2 of the seats in 2/3 of the states

  4. jdmussel: “Bob, why do you think a proposal to eliminate staggering would doom a PR proposal? …”

    For the same reason that including an increase in the size of the legislative body dooms PR proposals. Your audience simply can’t get past their gut-level sense that the problem with politicians is that there are already too many of them. The gut-level faith in staggered terms is not nearly as potent but it is almost as inbred (and, I suspect, unexamined). Staggered terms is one of those things you just don’t question. It’s hard enough to get people to see past the similarly gut-level belief that your legislator “represents” you because she hails from nearby, not because she shares your values and policy concerns. Adding challenges to additional unexamined assumptions to PR proposals turns an already steep hill into a mountain.

    • I find this very surprising. My impression was that the average voter doesn’t even realise staggering is going on, much less have gut-level faith in it.

      • My own gut level reaction here is that people may not have a great deal of awareness of staggering, but if you told them that now you’d elect all five of your city council members at one time, instead of three this year and the other two in two years, they’d instinctively think you are up to something nefarious.

        I do think staggering is pretty well ingrained as just the way things are done, even if folks could not tell you why it is in the proper nature of things, or why some bodies do not have it while others do.

        It seems like a small but important topic over which someone should do some survey or experimental research. I’d be happy to be shown I am wrong in my gut understanding of popular sentiment, or if I am right, to be shown it is easy to get over if reform is framed in certain ways.

    • The people of New Zealand got past the issue quite happily in 1993. Moreover, they reaffirmed their decision in 2011, after living with the alleged disadvantages of MMP for 18 years, by 57.77%. There may be a deep-rooted popular sentiment for staggering and small assemblies, but there is not a lot of concrete evidence for it.

      • My only experience is in the U.S. Here, what JD says is true: these prejudices are so visceral that voters — and to a lesser extent even politicians — aren’t aware of them until you propose to change anything. Maybe what I’m really describing is just the fear of change — any change at all.

      • So New Zealand gives us one case where a larger assembly was accepted. Despite “MMP means more MPs” being used in the anti-reform campaign of 1993, it did not come up as far as I know in the 2011 referendum. On the other hand, staggering, or its abolition, was not part of that package.

        Maybe someone can compile a list of examples where staggering was abolished, or proposed for abolition, and what the popular reaction was. (JD, do you know if US states have changed or discussed this in any of their constitutional reforms in recent decades?) Same with assembly/council size. There is, of course, research on that, although I do not know the extent of knowledge about the politics of “more politicians” vs. other framing of such (proposed) reform.

        As I said in the previous comment, I think the best way to get at this issue Bob has raised would be with survey/experimental research. It is not something I’m going to do, but I hereby appeal for someone to do it! Till we collect more evidence one way or the other, I suspect Bob is right.

      • I’ve struggled to find any comprehensive source regarding state institutions, even state by state. Historical developments are particularly difficult to find.

        North Dakota is one of the few states I’ve stumbled into some info about. Its current staggered terms for the state House date to 1998 when they were introduced after being approved in a 1996 referendum (previously the state used the more conventional H-2yrs, S-4yrs staggered scheme. North Dakota also came close to becoming the second state to adopt unicameralism in the 1970’s when it voted on a new state constitution in a referendum. Unicameralism was chosen over bicameralism by a 69-31 margin – but this would only have been implemented if the constitution itself was also approved. As the new constitution was rejected, ND remained bicameral.

  5. Here is one example for what we’ve been discussing. I am just reading an article I’ve been meaning to read for a while on the failed 1996 measure in San Francisco for STV. It notes that the reform coalition initially considered proposing an increase of the city board from 11 members to 15 to make districting easier along with preferential voting. However, when working with the board on specific proposals to place on the ballot, they dropped the latter idea “believing that voters were likely to object to paying for the increase of four additional supervisors.”

    The eventual (and defeated) proposal kept 11 members, and would have had citywide preference voting. Apparently the idea of eliminating staggering was not even considered. If you are going citywide, that makes sense (M=11 being rather on the high side). It is not clear from the article whether the districted plan (five districts with M=3) would still have been staggered, with different districts voting in different elections, or eliminating that feature and having all elected at once.

    Richard DeLeon , Steven Hill & Lisel Blash, “The Campaign for proposition H and preference voting in San Francisco, 1996,” Representation 35:4, 265-274, DOI: 10.1080/00344899808523048

    • In the Netherlands, any municipality over 200,000 inhabitants has a council of 45 members (SF has almost the same population as Amsterdam. Copenhagen and Frankfurt, with smaller but still comparable populations, have councils of 55 and 91 respectively; Stockholm, with just under a million people, has 101. The smallest council of any European City between 750k and 1 million people I could find is Valencia, with 33 members.

      • I’ve been wondering whether the cube root pattern holds up for very small jurisdictions (towns and small cities) and very large ones, or is only useful in the middle of the size distribution. I’m asking this as a question about the theoretical model. In the U.S., I don’t think the empirical relationship holds at all for municipal and county government. Is that an anomaly or is there some conceptual basis for it?

        I realize I’m jumping the gun here, since there will probably be a separate installment about assembly size across the 50 states.

      • There absolutely will be a post about state legislatures’ assembly size!

        Regarding local councils, size is often (but not always) determined by some formula set by law, which usually assign a different number of councillors for different population tiers. I don’t know how much these approximate the cube-root rule, but I guess not very closely – especially in the US where councils are tiny in comparative terms (the largest council of a US city between 750k and 1mln is Indianapolis’ 25-seat council; the largest three cities, NY, LA, and Chicago, have 51, 15, and 50 seats, respectively), but even in Europe which has much larger councils. Not that we should necessarily expect local councils to follow the cube rule, especially where they are not second- but third-, or even lower tier jurisdictions.

      • In many countries the number of members in local councils is determined by national law : a table with population intervals => number of seats. I’ve checked those tables for Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Italy and Germany (Nordrhein-Westfalen and Bayern) and I have the feeling legislators each time approximate the cube root law without knowing it exists.

      • The Western Cape legislature has 42 members. The Cape Town city council has 231 members. Both numbers are set by national legislation. I’m not sure how South Africa sets these numbers, but it would be hard to come up with a consistent rationale.

      • Is Cape Town have the largest city council in the world at 231? Interesting that the Western Cape Provincial Assembly is so much smaller at 42?

        Is this unusual in that a Provincial parliament is so much smaller than a city council? I would imagine that the numbers would be reversed for the jurisdictions. It may be better to have a huge city council and county assembly, then smaller state/providence/regional assembly, then even smaller national/federal parliament/congress.

  6. Is there any academic discussion in the US on either the federal or state level over possible constitutional limits on how long a legislative term of office could be?

    Here in Germany, 15 of the 16 states now have established 5-year terms for their legislatures (all unstaggered), in a consistent movement (starting in the early 1970’s with NRW up to the late 2000’s) that saw them switching over one by one from the “traditional” 4-year term. Bremen is the lone outlying remainer at 4 years, as of course still is the federal term for the Bundestag as well.

    Many constitutional scholars hold that this 5 years is more or less the maximum term for a legislature constitutionally permissible and any longer term would run afoul of the constitutional principle of democratic government. This is held to require legislative elections in some reasonable periodicity, which those scholars claim would no longer be fulfilled if the term becomes too long.

    (There seems to be a greater tolerance for direct elections of executive positions, where I’ve read 7 years brought forward as a still permissible term, probably based on the example of the Weimar Constitution and that of the French Fifth Republic before its presidential term was shortened to 5 years).

    Is there any comparable discussion in other countries? (which presumably would presuppose the concept of unconstitional constitutional provisions).

    N.B.: I don’t think I’ve ever seen constitutional limits for a minimum of a legislative term brought forward. Though I suppose most people from a parliamentary system background would consider those American 2-year terms, staggered or not, as awfully short.

    • Interestingly all Australian states and territories have 4 year terms for the lower house or if it is unicameral, but the Federal lower house is 3 years.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliaments_of_the_Australian_states_and_territories

      Below here a study was done on increasing Australia terms for House of Representatives, it was done a while back ago, so a lot has changed. https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp0001/01RP04

      Australia and Germany are Federations where the states and Länder have longer terms than the Federal parliament have. I wonder if Australia will have another referendum on the subject.

      It appears that it is common to lengthen a parliamentary term, Sweden, Australian state of Queensland had at one time had three year terms, NZ is considering 4 year terms, Austria had 4 year terms at one time and now is at 5 years, when was this done? It seems common to lengthen or shorten terms, Canada had 5 years, now it is 4 years, but interestingly enough Ireland’s Constitution sets 7 years for the Dail, but by law is set by 5 years. At one time, did the UK parliament had a 7 year term?

      • The UK had a legal maximum of seven years between elections under the Septennial Act from 1716 to 1911 after it elections had been required every three years under the Triannual Act 1694. The last time that maximum was actually reached was in 1768 (of course, the term of the House of Commons was later temporarily extended during both World Wars for longer periods under the 1911 Parliament Acts).

      • NZ held an inquiry some years ago which concluded that the shorter term is appropriate in a country without a written constitution, an entrenched bill of rights, or any limits on the powers of the national parliament. They have defeated a number of term referendums, most recently in 1990 where the majority against was 69.3%.

  7. About the terms of 2 years, I wonder if this is one of the reasons because the USA has avoiding the usual fate of presidentialist regimes – the President-Parliament conflicts who end, or with the President closing the Parliament and proclaiming himself something like “supreme leader”, or with an army general sacking the president at the request of some MPs (and again, proclaiming himself something like “supreme leader”).

    It is perhaps because the terms are so short that the President-Parliament conflicts never heat to much – the new election is always near, then the main priority of the supporters of the President is to gain the majority in the Congress in the next election, and the main priority of the supporters of the Congress is to reinforce their majority (instead of trying to win the support of the army against the other side).

    • Miguel, this is a very interesting hypothesis! Personally, I’m a little sceptical. One issue is that many Latin American countries used to have shorter terms, e.g. Colombia had two-year terms until 1968, Chile had three-year terms for a long time, Argentina still has 1/2+1/3 Congressional elections every 2 years. I suspect that if these countries ever had a term length problem it probably had more to do with presidential terms being so long (5 or 6 years used to be quite common) and non-concurrent with assembly terms.

      Secondly, let’s say a conflict develops between a president and the assembly when the next legislative election is just less than two years away. Let’s supposed that the key players’ chief incentive, as you suggest, is to do well in the upcoming assembly election. What happens if the outcome does not resolve the situation (i.e., most likely, the assembly anti-president majority retains or even improves its position. If the next assembly election is only two years away, do they immediately go into election mode again? This doesn’t seem likely to me – more likely the assembly leaders will expect the president to capitulate to their ‘superior mandate’, and may think it legitimate to attempt a coup – and the president might attempt an incumbent takeover. Chile’s September 11 coup happened about 6 months after a Congressional election; the presidential election was due within three years. Is three years so much more than two years? Maybe. I don’t know. But I would be surprised if you could not find coups that took place within two years of the next presidential and/or assembly election.

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