The Impact of District Magnitude on the Legislative Behavior of State Representatives

AuthorJames M. Curry,Paul S. Herrnson,Jeffrey A. Taylor
Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 302 –317
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917735177
Legislators’ decisions about how to allocate their time
and effort have a major impact on the quality of represen-
tation constituents receive, the policy agenda, and the
bills that become law. These decisions also can influence
lawmakers’ prospects for political advancement, includ-
ing reelection. Such decisions do not take place in a vac-
uum, but are conditioned by political institutions and
processes. For instance, we know the policy issues legis-
lators focus on are influenced by their committee assign-
ments (Hall 1996), the nature of their constituencies
(Mayhew 1974), and many other factors.
While it is well accepted that the rules that structure
elections can have an impact on legislative behavior, the
effects of some American electoral institutions are not
well understood. This is particularly the case for district
magnitude—the number of officials elected in a single
district. Although single-member districts (SMDs) are the
most recognized electoral configuration in the United
States, multimember districts (MMDs) are common. Ten
state legislatures, more than two-thirds of all municipal
governments, and a multitude of county councils, school
boards, and other special governments use MMDs. A sub-
stantial body of research finds that district magnitude
influences electoral competition (Cox and Morgenstern
1995; Niemi, Jackman, and Winsky 1991), the diversity
of lawmaking bodies (Trounstine and Valdini 2008), the
types of policies pursued (Bagashka and Clark 2016), and
more. However, little is known about the impact of
district magnitude on participation of legislators in basic
policymaking activities.1
While some research suggests MMDs can foster coop-
erative relationships among same-district lawmakers and
improve their collective effectiveness, we argue that
because MMDs foster uniquely competitive electoral
environments and at the same time provide legislators
with unique opportunities to claim credit for the work of
their same-district colleagues, lawmakers elected in dis-
tricts of larger magnitudes focus more of their energies on
relatively low-cost, high-visibility activities that provide
clear electoral payoffs, such as introducing and cospon-
soring legislation. Similarly, compared with their col-
leagues in SMDs, MMD legislators devote less energy to
moving policy proposals through the stages of the legisla-
tive process. These activities require substantial behind-
the-scenes effort, are less visible to constituents, and
provide less immediate electoral payoffs. In other words,
MMD legislators respond to their district dynamics by
acting more like legislative “show horses,” rather than
735177PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917735177Political Research QuarterlyTaylor et al.
1Westat, Rockville, MD, USA
2University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA
3University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA
Corresponding Author:
James M. Curry, Department of Political Science, University of Utah,
332 S 1400 E, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
The Impact of District Magnitude
on the Legislative Behavior of State
Jeffrey A. Taylor1, Paul S. Herrnson2, and James M. Curry3
This study demonstrates that district magnitude (the number of officials elected from an electoral district) affects the
behavioral choices and policymaking contributions of legislators. We theorize that legislators elected from districts of
larger magnitudes focus much of their efforts on relatively low-cost, high-visibility activities that allow for easy credit
claiming, while their colleagues from lower magnitude districts focus more on relatively high-cost, low-visibility work
required to move policy proposals through the legislative process. We test our hypotheses using data recording
the legislative activities of members of the Maryland House of Delegates, which elects its member from districts
of different magnitudes. The results, which are mostly supportive, have implications for the impact of institutional
structures on representation and policymaking.
multimember districts, state legislatures, legislative behavior
Taylor et al. 303
“work horses” (e.g., Langbein and Sigelman 1989;
Matthews 1959; Payne 1980).
We test these expectations with an original dataset of
legislative actions taken by members of the Maryland
House of Delegates, a legislative chamber that elects its
members from districts of various magnitudes and pro-
vides several analytical benefits. Specifically, we analyze
bill introductions and cosponsorships, floor amendment
activity, and successes in getting bills reported by a com-
mittee or signed into law. The results have implications
for policymaking and representation, and contribute to a
growing literature on electoral institutions and legislative
MMDs and Legislative Behavior
Electoral institutions can meaningfully influence legisla-
tures and the behavior of those who serve in them (e.g.,
Carey and Hix 2011; Carey et al. 2006; Hayes, Hibbing,
and Sulkin 2010). MMDs, in particular, influence various
aspects of politics, including electoral competition (Cox
and Morgenstern 1995; Niemi, Jackman, and Winsky
1991), the diversity of a legislature’s membership
(Trounstine and Valdini 2008), the financing of cam-
paigns (Curry, Herrnson, and Taylor 2013), and voter par-
ticipation (Herrnson, Taylor, and Curry 2015). We argue
that district magnitude also influences representatives’
engagement in different legislative activities, which, in
turn, affects their policymaking successes.
The factors influencing a legislator’s activities in
office include those shaping the opportunities and con-
straints lawmakers face in taking action, and those shap-
ing their motivations to try (Hall 1996). Opportunities
and constraints include majority or minority party status
(Anderson, Box-Steffensmeier, and Sinclair-Chapman
2003; Cox and Terry 2008) and institutional position,
including their seniority or serving as a committee chair
(Cox and Terry 2008; Miquel and Snyder 2006). They
also include a legislator’s standing among colleagues,
political alliances, and friendships (Bratton and Rouse
2011; Fowler 2006; Kirkland 2011; Tam Cho and Fowler
2010). Broad institutional and environmental factors help
shape the overall productivity of a legislature and its
members, including the number serving in the chamber
(Kirkland 2014), unified versus divided government
(Binder 1999; Bowling and Ferguson 2001, but see
Mayhew 2005), party polarization (Binder 1999), and
public support for government action (Stimson, Mackuen,
and Erikson 1995).
Motivation refers to a legislator’s willingness to com-
mit to any type of action. There are no formal require-
ments for lawmakers to produce policies, or really do
anything at all. They are instead driven to do so by their
objectives. Fenno’s (1973) trinity of goals—reelection,
good public policy, and influence within the legislature—
continue to be the most frequently ascribed, but legisla-
tors also are driven to support the interests of their party
(Lee 2009), and some are motivated by the pursuit of
higher office (Maestas 2000). Legislators also respond to
unique opportunities to influence policy (Adler and
Wilkerson 2013).
We argue that a district’s magnitude influences both
legislators’ opportunities and motivations to commit time
and resources to different legislative actions. While the
mutual electoral and policy interests of MMD delegations
(members elected from the same MMD) may provide a
foundation for collaboration (see Hamm, Harmel, and
Thompson 1981), and improve legislators’ opportunities
and successes with legislative work (Dauer 1966;
Kirkland 2012; Snyder and Ueda 2007), there are reasons
to suspect MMDs influence legislative behavior in more
nuanced ways. For one, some MMD delegations may
cooperate with each other more than others. Split-party
delegations (consisting of members from more than one
party) are likely to often disagree, and districts with
highly competitive elections may strain relations among
even same-party members of a delegation as they pit leg-
islators against each other in both primary and general
Even under harmonious circumstances, MMD legisla-
tors may be less motivated than SMD legislators to engage
in more demanding policymaking activities because they
typically face more uncertain electoral environments and
may feel the need to dedicate more time to symbolic show
horse activities that may better position them for reelec-
tion. Indeed, MMD elections are usually more competitive
than SMDs because they feature more candidates (Carey,
Niemi, and Powell 2000; Niemi and Winsky 1987; Squire
2000), with winners receiving relatively small percentages
of the vote and winning by smaller margins (Jewell and
Breaux 1991; but see Weber, Tucker, and Brace 1991).
Furthermore, turnover rates are higher and incumbency
advantages are weaker in larger magnitude districts (Carey,
Niemi, and Powell 2000; Hirano and Snyder 2009; but see
Holbrook and Tidmarch 1991).
The nature of electoral competition in MMDs is also
different from that found in SMDs. Unlike most SMD
elections, candidates of the same party, including incum-
bents, must compete against each other for voter support
in both the primary and the general election. Intraparty
competition may exist in some SMD primaries, but rarely
in general elections. Ballot roll-off—wherein a voter
casts a ballot for fewer candidates than allowed—is com-
mon in MMDs (Herrnson, Taylor, and Curry 2015;
Engstrom and McDonald 1993). Consequently, legisla-
tors from the same party in an MMD are often competing
to earn the votes of “single-shot” or “bullet” voters who
could make the difference between winning and losing.

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