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!

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.