By Karen Shanton
California and Illinois and Republicans throughout the South and Midwest, many post-election headlines trumpeted the arrival of new legislative supermajorities. One thing that has been obscured in some of this coverage is that 'supermajority' is a nuanced concept. Despite the name, figuring out where Republicans and Democrats hold supermajorities isn't nearly as simple as counting where they're in the majority.
'Majority' always means 'more than half.' 'Supermajority,' on the other hand, can mean any number of things – from 'three-fifths' to 'two-thirds' to 'three-fourths.' To a Nebraska legislator looking to refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot, a supermajority is three-fifths. An Arkansan who wants to appropriate money for something other than education, highways or debt reduction needs a three-fourths supermajority. A legislature is 'veto-proof' (one party controls enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto) when a single party controls three-fifths of the vote in Illinois or two-thirds in Georgia; a simple majority will do the trick in Kentucky. Arizona legislatures can overturn most vetoes with a two-thirds supermajority but tax bill vetoes require three-fourths of the vote.
To make things even more complicated, supermajorities aren't always calculated from the same pool of votes. Vermont legislators can overturn a gubernatorial veto as long as two-thirds of the members present agree to the override. Legislators in North Dakota have to muster the votes of two-thirds of members elected while Michiganders need two-thirds of members elected and serving.
And, unlike majorities, supermajorities are context-dependent. You can tell me whether Florida Republicans hold a majority even if you don't know why I want to know. The same isn't true of supermajorities. If we're talking about referring a constitutional amendment to the ballot, Republicans hold a supermajority in Florida. If we're talking about overriding a veto, they don't. So, the answer to the question, "Do Republicans have a supermajority in Florida?" could be either yes or no, depending on the context.
What this suggests is that it doesn't really make sense to ask, "Does one party hold a supermajority in that state?" or "How many state legislatures have supermajorities?" Instead, we should focus on something more specific, such as "Does one party have the power to refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot in that state?" or "How many state legislatures are veto-proof?" This distinction might be worth keeping in mind when the next article about new legislative supermajorities pops up in your RSS reader.