Sub-constituencies and Legislative Responsiveness: Evidence from the States

AuthorJillian Jaeger
Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18s7FcSdiMt2We/input 796316PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918796316Political Research QuarterlyJaeger
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 473 –487
Sub-constituencies and Legislative
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Responsiveness: Evidence
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918796316
from the States
Jillian Jaeger1
This article tests whether theories of congressional behavior that link legislative responsiveness to the preferences of
sub-constituencies at the expense of party preferences apply to the state level. Using ten years of state-level data and
roll-call data from nearly 4,000 individual votes on E-Verify legislation, I examine the competing influences of party and
constituency preferences on legislative behavior. The results confirm that state legislatures/legislators are responsive
to sub-constituencies, but find that responsiveness plays out in different ways depending on the level of analysis and
the political party and constituents in question. These results have important implications for our understanding of
legislative representation: because responsiveness to sub-constituencies can yield policy results that are antithetical
to stated party goals, what appears to be collective irresponsibility from a party may actually be individual legislators
striving to be responsive to those constituents that they anticipate will hold them accountable.
responsiveness, state legislatures, representation, E-Verify
Early studies of public influence on state legislative
a vested interest in that policy. Accordingly, this research
behavior painted a dismal picture of responsiveness. Not
sets out to test the applicability of congressional-level
only did there appear to be no link between public opin-
theories, which link constituency preferences to legisla-
ion and policy output (Dye 1961; Plotnick and Winters
tive behavior, at the state level. As the federalist system
1985), the accepted rationale for this disconnect was that
places state governments in a prime position to tailor their
voters were uninformed and apathetic (Treadway 1985).
policies to the preferences of their constituents, exploring
Recent research, however, is more optimistic. After
the relationship between state legislative responsiveness
Erikson, Wright, and McIver (1993) demonstrated that
and sub-constituencies is a natural and overdue line of
states do adopt policy regimes that align with the ideol-
ogy of their citizens, research has repeatedly shown a
To test the relationship between sub-constituency
strong relationship between public opinion and state pol-
preferences and legislative responsiveness, I examine
icy on salient issues (Brace et al. 2002; Lax and Phillips
variation in state-level adoption of E-Verify laws from
2009; Lupia et al. 2010), but not in less salient policy
2006 to 2015 and legislator roll-call voting on this mea-
areas (Lax and Phillips 2009, 2012). Most conclude that
sure. E-Verify, a system that mandates employers elec-
without a strong position from the general public, legisla-
tronically verify the legal status of prospective employees
tors shirk constituency preferences and succumb to party-
using federal databases, is an apt case for showing the
based influences (Jenkins 2010; Kirkland and Harden
essential role that sub-constituencies can play in the state
2016; Lax and Phillips 2012; Patterson 1996) or overesti-
legislative process. While E-Verify has received little
mate voter positioning on the issue and enact policies that
attention from the general public, putting it neatly into the
are actually more extreme than public preferences (Lax
category of low-profile legislation, it is especially salient
and Phillips 2012). While both of these accounts are rea-
to sub-constituencies who are directly impacted by its
sonable, I contend that this body of work overlooks an
alternative explanation well-established in theories of
1St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, USA
congressional behavior (Bishin 2000; Clinton 2006;
Fenno 1978; Hayes and Bishin 2012; Miller and Stokes
Corresponding Author:
Jillian Jaeger, Department of Government, St. Lawrence University,
1963): when faced with less salient policy issues, legisla-
23 Romoda Dr., Canton, NY 13617, USA.
tors respond to the preferences of sub-constituencies with

Political Research Quarterly 72(2)
enforcement: farm owners, Latinos, and Asians. In addi-
added the role of organized interests, but still find that
tion, because Democrats lack a formal position on
public opinion is the strongest predictor of policy direc-
E-Verify and the official Republican position is distinct
tion (Gray et al. 2004). Jacoby and Schneider (2001) fur-
from that of the interested sub-constituencies, E-Verify
ther show that public opinion not only influences policy
allows us to clearly differentiate between the relative
direction but also state policy priorities. Other studies
effects of sub-constituency and party-based pressure on
confirm a direct link between public attitudes and the
adoption of specific policies, such as gay rights, the death
In short, the findings partially confirm and extend to
penalty, and abortion policy (Arceneaux 2002; Brace
the state-level early work by Fenno (1978) and Miller and
et al. 2002; Gerber 1996; Haider-Markel and Kaufman
Stokes (1963). State legislatures/legislators are respon-
2006; Lax and Phillips 2009; Norrander 2000).
sive to sub-constituencies, but responsiveness plays out
Although research has taken significant steps in terms
in different ways depending on the level of analysis and
of extending Erickson, Wright, and McIver’s findings to
the political party. At the state level, E-Verify is kept off
specific attitudes and subsequent policy adoption, these
the agenda in Republican legislatures where pressure
improvements are not without their own limitations. Thus
from farm owners is strongest while such legislation
far any connection between public opinion and state pol-
passes in states where the electoral power of this sub-
icy has been limited to those issues that are especially
constituency is considerably weaker. Yet, even among
salient to the general public. For example, Gerber (1996)
those states that do pass E-Verify, there is strong evidence
finds that members of California’s legislature voted in
to suggest that individual Republican legislators are will-
accordance with their district when legislation was highly
ing to split with party ranks to protect the interests of their
salient, while those representing districts where the same
farmer constituents. Interestingly, the presence of a large
issues were deemed insignificant to constituents tended
Latino/Asian population has no statistically significant
to vote against their majority’s preferences. Similarly,
effect on the probability of a state adopting E-Verify even
Lax and Phillips (2009, 370) conclude simply and
if that state’s legislature is controlled by the Democratic
emphatically that “higher salience means greater
Party. That said, larger Latino/Asian communities do
appear to diminish the probability of an individual
But if legislators are acting without regard for public
Democrat voting “yea” on E-Verify, though the robust-
opinion on less visible issues, then what is guiding their
ness of this effect is called into question as the roll-call
behavior? Without taking up this question explicitly,
margin narrows. Given recent findings by Rogers (2017),
most state-level studies assume that as issue salience
which suggest that state legislators are not held account-
diminishes, party pressure takes over to drive legislative
able for their actions and, thus, need not worry about their
decision making (Jenkins 2010; Kirkland and Harden
constituents’ preferences, these findings suggest a more
2016; Lax and Phillips 2012; Patterson 1996). The
nuanced and optimistic picture of state politics: parties
Downsian logic behind this assumption is clear: if the
may be viewed as collectively irresponsible, but only
preferences of the median voter on a particular issue are
because individual legislators are responsive to certain
undefined, then a legislator’s actions are not threatened
constituencies—a responsiveness that likely occurs pre-
by the ballot box and they should do their best to curry
cisely because they anticipate that particular groups will
favor with party leadership (Carson et al. 2010; Cox and
hold them accountable.
McCubbins 2005; Jenkins 2008). Yet, this supposed con-
stituency-party trade-off is rarely straightforward. It
Legislative Responsiveness
could be that what is interpreted as party pressure is actu-
ally legislators acting on their personal preferences
Some level of legislative responsiveness is key to achiev-
(Krehbiel 1993) or party pressure masking “an underly-
ing a democracy. Indeed, political scientists have long
ing constituency influence” (Kingdon 1968, 6). Lax and
found that members of Congress are incentivized to rep-
Phillips (2012) speculate that any disconnect between
resent their districts’ preferences or face grave electoral
state legislative behavior and aggregate preferences
consequences (Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan 2002;
might be due to...

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