Introducing: 50 Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in US states

The topic of US state constitutions comes up on this blog from time to time. Naturally, they form an obvious comparison to the federal government. They share many similarities with the federal constitution, but also differ from it, and from each other in various ways. On the other hand, state institutions are also easily dismissed, as their design, in practice, varies relatively little from each other and is often mired in antiquated constitutional models. Moreover, given the extremely nationalised of American politics today, it’s not surprising reformers’ focus is more often than not on the federal level. Perhaps partly for these reasons, state institutions often appear not so well known, both by us comparativists and reform proponents, as well as on the part of journalists[1], whom we occasionally ridicule for their apparent ignorance and parochialism when they report about politics outside the US.

Here are two reasons why it is actually important to be more familiar state-level political institutions, specifically for reform-minded Americans. Firstly, institutional reform at any level (but especially at the highest level) in the US is only likely to gain traction once it is shown to work in the United States. So electoral and other reform at the state level should not be a secondary priority – instead, it will probably be crucial to get PR and other reforms on the agenda at the federal level. Secondly, and related to the first reason, some states have institutions that will make reform easier to pass – and these states should be the ones reform advocates should probably focus on. Moreover, some states already implement some political institutions worth emulating, yet these get scant attention either as proposals for reform in other states or in discussions for federal constitutional reform.

These are some of the reasons motivating my new series of posts on this blog: Fifty Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in the states of the USA. Every few weeks, I will present a different dimension of state political institutions with a map which shows the distribution of different institutional variations across the states. Feel free to copy and distribute these maps – the more the better.

All seriousness aside, I think this will be a fun exercise, and I hope it will prompt some interesting discussions! Let me know in the comments what you think, and especially if there are any specific institutions you would like me to post on.

My first post in the series should be up momentarily…


[1] I’m thinking, for example, of an article I saw recently about a Kentucky bill which had been vetoed by the Governor and whose fate now rested with legislators. Its author wrote at length about various political factors affecting the legislature’s consideration of whether to pass the bill, and the various constituencies and factions involved, but nowhere was there any mention of the fact that in Kentucky, overriding the Governor’s veto takes merely an absolute majority of each house, compared with usual supermajority requirement.

10 thoughts on “Introducing: 50 Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in US states

  1. An absolute majority seems a much more rational requirement than there federal supermajority. It would also reduce the malign impact of INS v Chadha, which led to the ridiculous situation where a presidential declaration of emergency can only be overridden by a supermajority in each house.

    I’m also attracted to the Alaskan rule where veto overrides go to both houses in joint session, rather than each house separately.

    • But Alan, how would you prevent the legislature from encroaching on the proper sphere of the executive branch (whatever that is)?

      I have a map of veto override levels ready, it will probably feature in my second or third post.

  2. Pingback: Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 1: State legislative terms of office | Fruits and Votes

  3. Currently, an individual state wouldn’t be allowed to change its US House elections to use proportional representation. (That might be arguable if the #ProRep method were biproportional with single-seat districts; but at least, it clearly holds for any “ordinary” #ProRep method using multiseat districts.)

    I understand, state legislative elections could be reformed. And that would be a good proving ground.

    But partisan dynamics are still a hurdle. Essentially: in the places where this kind of reform is most needed, either for US House or for state legislatures, it’s hardest to accomplish; and conversely, where it’s easiest to accomplish, it’s least needed. In fact, if the federal restriction on multiseat districts were lifted, it’s possible that state-level proportional reform could actually make federal-level partisan bias worse.

  4. homunq writes, ” if the federal restriction on multiseat districts were lifted, it’s possible that state-level proportional reform could actually make federal-level partisan bias worse.”

    Can you elaborate on this? Why and how?

    • If California adopted PR for its house delegation, but Texas did not, that would be a significant advantage for Republicans because they would retain their FPTP seats in Texas and gain at least some PR seats in California. I hesitated to make this point because I don’t want to draft legislation for Mitch McConnell.

      • Thanks. I’m (painfully) aware of that problem but for some reason homunq’s reference didn’t bring it to mind. It’s a huge obstacle to reform.

      • I mean, it’s an obstacle, but as I see it its an obstacle to something you wouldn’t want, anyway. A path to PR in federal elections that goes through the states is just inherently problematic. If PR is to happen, it should be enacted for the whole House at once.

  5. Click to access 2021_2_State%20of%20Redistricting.pdf

    Coming 2021-2030 gerrymanders.

    MORE ANTI-DEMOCRACY MINORITY RULE –

    1/2 OR LESS VOTES X 1/2 GERRYMANDER AREAS = 1/4 OR LESS CONTROL.

    MUCH MUCH MUCH WORSE EXTREMIST PRIMARY MATH.

    ONE simple PR method –

    TOTAL VOTES/ TOTAL MEMBERS = EQUAL VOTES TO ELECT EACH MEMBER.

    PRE-ELECTION RANK ORDER LISTS OF OTHER CANDIDATES.
    SURPLUS VOTES DOWN. LOSER VOTES UP.
    A-L-L VOTES COUNT.
    BOTH MAJORITY RULE AND MINORITY REPRESENTATION.

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