Compensation, Opportunity, and Information: A Comparative Analysis of Legislative Nonresponse in the American States

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 644 –656
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917709355
In the 1999–2000 session of the Alabama House of
Representatives, members failed to take a position on
over 24 percent of roll-call votes. In the Wisconsin House
during that same period, representatives recorded a vote
on over 99 percent of roll calls. Legislative nonresponse,
whether it is strategic abstention, declining to vote for a
lack of information, or simply due to absence from the
chamber, is a fundamental failing of legislators to repre-
sent their constituents—a break in the process of repre-
sentative democracy. Each time legislators decline to
vote on a legislative proposal, they silence the voice of
their constituents, potentially contributing to the realiza-
tion of an outcome they oppose, and skew the relation-
ship between the public’s preferences and the policies its
government delivers. Yet, despite its normative salience,
the contextual variation observed among the legislative
assemblies of the United States (and legislatures around
the world, for that matter) has gone largely unexplored.
Instead, scholarly examination has predominately argued
that the decision to vote is motivated by individual con-
cerns, such as careerism (Cohen and Noll 1991; Hibbing
1986) or dissonance between the preferences of a legisla-
tor’s party and his or her district (e.g., Rosas and Shomer
2008). By focusing almost exclusively on individual con-
cerns, the extant literature is largely unable to explain
variation in aggregate nonresponse rates across legisla-
tures and therefore does not allow us to understand how
institutional factors, such as compensation, informational
resources, and so forth, may shape a legislator’s decision
to be present and vote—a legislator’s decision to repre-
sent their constituents. In this manuscript, we address this
opportunity in the literature and provide an answer to the
question: why are nonresponse rates higher in some leg-
islatures than others?
Our explanation is rooted in simple logic: nonresponse
is a function of legislators’ willingness and ability to cast
a vote. Where past studies have overwhelmingly focused
on individual-level factors, however, we step back and
consider the contextual factors that contribute to this
choice. Building on the existing literature on legislative
professionalism, we ask, how may legislative bodies
increase their members’ willingness and ability to be
present in the chamber when the roll is called and take a
position on that proposal? We use the ninety-nine state
709355PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917709355Political Research QuarterlyFortunato and Provins
1Texas A&M University, College Station, USA
2University of California, Merced, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Fortunato, Department of Political Science, Texas A&M
University, 2035 Allen Building, 4348 TAMU, College Station, TX
77843-4348, USA.
Compensation, Opportunity, and
Information: A Comparative Analysis
of Legislative Nonresponse in the
American States
David Fortunato1 and Tessa Provins2
We present a parsimonious framework for understanding contextual variation in legislative nonresponse. We argue
that legislators’ propensity to vote is a function of their willingness and ability to be physically present in the chamber
and determine the best position to take on a given proposal. From this framework, we derive four hypotheses
regarding the compensation legislators receive, their opportunity to pursue work outside of the chamber, and their
informational resources. Analyzing data on over seven million voting opportunities across two sessions in ninety-
nine chambers, we find robust evidence that longer legislative sessions decrease nonresponse and that informational
resources increase nonresponse, but no evidence that compensation influences nonresponse.
institutions, legislative professionalism, legislative voting, nonresponse

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