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« Recall: Tool of Accountability or "an Affront to Representative Democracy"? | Main | The Bella Abzug Effect »

April 16, 2008


Gerry Cohen

North Carolina here:
We started providing this information online beginning in 1997, but it was largely cryptic text files. Beginning in 2001 when we got a new voting system from International Roll Call, finding each members vote was integretable (with some special programming) into our website. While votes by member were available beginning in 1997, we did not start providing online the rollcall on a particular bill in the House until 2001 and the Senate until 2004. That information was available in looseleaf notebooks in our library. Our IT folks were unaware that not providing votes by member was ever even a topic for discussion, and they never got any pushback.

Duncan Goss

In Vermont it was similar to the North Carolina situation: when we added the roll call detail functionality to our internal database, we just naturally went ahead and put it on the Web site. No discussion, we just did it. No one has ever questioned our doing so.

Jim Battista

I was also going to suggest that this particular difference is probably a result of different back-end systems, whether the legislature's IT people focus on programming or more basic support issues, and the interests of the IT people. More to the point, and not due to anything structurally political.

As well, your K-school researcher should also note that many states also provided roll-call votes in their online journals. If anything, these are easier to analyze en masse than the query-engine based systems because they're easy to download can be relatively easily processed with standard regular-expression tools.

J.H. Snider

Thank you for all your helpful feedback. As Karl’s comments describe, I’m trying to explain why of 126 legislative branches I’ve examined, only nine provided roll call votes by legislator. Neither the U.S. Congress nor any of the largest 25 cities provided this information. The nine that did were all state legislative branches (The House and Senate in New Hampshire, the House and Senate in Vermont, the House and Senate in North Carolina, the House only in Washington, and the House and Senate in New Jersey).

I think the best explanation will probably include a combination of actor-specific and structural factors. Karl’s Bella Abzug story is an example of an actor-specific type of explanation (as an aside, like Karl, I started my career as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow). Systematic political self-interest would be an example of a structural explanation.

Consistent with the political self-interest hypothesis, the data indicate that less professional legislatures are more likely to provide online roll call votes by legislator. For example, using NCSL's data classifying state legislatures into five groups based on professionalism, the five states with roll call votes by legislator have a mean professionalism score of 2.56 whereas the mean for the other legislatures is 2.88 (with 5 signifying high professionalism and 1 low professionalism). No state legislature with a professionalism score of 5 provided roll call votes by legislator. Although the number of cases is relatively small, they suggest a pattern consistent with the hypothesis that providing roll call votes by legislator is a politically salient decision. The outlier inconsistent with this hypothesis is New Jersey, which had a professionalism score of 4. If you have insights on how New Jersey came to be an outlier, please let me know.

In trying to assess a variety of competing structural explanations such as cost, inertia, and political self-interest, I’m hoping that you can provide me with answers to the following questions:

What was the year International Roll Call updated its relational database software to allow for roll call searches by legislator as well as by bill? What is the ballpark cost to making that information available on legislative websites?

Is it fair to say that the party leadership in pretty much all the state legislatures have Intranet access to the roll call votes of their members, listed by member name?

Do any state legislatures subscribe to the proprietary legislative information services used by professional lobbyists to track bills and roll call votes?

In the five states with online roll call access by legislator, is there any concrete evidence that this information has led to an increase in demagoguery? Or that it has had any political effect whatsoever?

Thanks for any insights you can provide.

Jim Snider, Fellow
John F. Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK Street, Taubman 252
Cambridge, MA 02138
Off: 617-495-8269
Fax: 617-495-8696

Jim Battista

I would want to rule out the apolitical alternate hypothesis that IT staff in less professionalized legislatures have more time at their disposal to do things like this. If there's a nice long time when the legislature isn't meeting, I can maybe spend more time fine-tuning the systems and developing new things since I don't have to spend as much time walking legislators through the email system and gently reminding them that their new pcs don't have cup-holders.

If you can get data on the size of the IT staff relative to the number of legislator-days the chamber is in session, I'd think that would be a fine control. That, and maybe whether those IT staff have any civil-service protection or serve at the pleasure of the leadership.

NB: this isn't to say that they don't work hard in less professionalized chambers. As someone who periodically hammers their servers and pesters them with questions, believe you me they work plenty hard.

Karl Kurtz

I received the following comment from former New Jersey Senator Robert Martin, a professor of law at Seton Hall University, about the bill that he sponsored in 2007 to enable online publication of roll call votes by legislator:

"My inspiration was "old school." An individual (not in my legislative district) wrote to me (because I had a history of sponsoring "goo-goo"--good government--legislation) and suggested that we change the law in NJ. It seems he had been very interested in a specific piece of legislation and was frustrated that he could not find out how certain legislators voted for or against it in committee and on the floor. When I found out that the proposal would have very minimal costs for the state and that the Office of Legislative Services was not opposed, I pursued the legislation. There was a public signing in (I think) Oct. of last year, and the gentleman who first proposed the bill was there (I can't think of his name but we have it on file). Anyway, I presented him with the pen with which the Governor signed the bill into law. He was extremely pleased.

"There was not much opposition by the leadeship in either party to this bill. It was posted in the latter part of an election year and there were bigger good-government bills that were drawing attention and opposition (namely the drive to end dual office-holding and pay to play in NJ). But I know what you mean about legislative leaders getting antsy: it took me 10 years to get an open public records bill enacted (OPRA), largely because of the hostility of leaders in my own party--who, now that they're in the minority, routinely use OPRA to gain access to info about the Governor and the Democratic majority."

Jack McHugh

My organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is the sponsor of, a free website that not only allows users to view all a particular legislator's roll call votes, but includes concise, objective, plain-English descriptions of each vote. These are searchable and sortable by category, keyword and date-range in addition to legislator.,, and are sponsored by organizations in those states, and provide the same information. Additional states including New Mexico, Kansas and several others will soon have the same.

The situation is even worse than you describe, however. In several states, including Maine, New Mexico and Texas that I know of, no roll call vote is required on final passage of a bill. In my view this is a pernicious practice that potentially allows extremely controverial laws (like a major tax increase) to be signed into law with every single legislator claiming to have opposed a bill that passed both houses on voice votes. It is my hope that the creation of "" sites in those states will place this anti-accountability practice under a spotlight and lead to reform.


Hawaii does not provide these data...

So I decided to provide it myself!

Karl Kurtz

I received the following comment from Tpublico and am publishing it with his/her approval:

"First, let me just say that I’m glad I found this site for my legislative fix… I’m glad to see I’m not the only one :).

"This is in regard to your blog post - Making Legislators' Votes Available Online. I’m not a legislator, but just a citizen from Rhode Island (with no involvement in politics) that only within the past few years has kept a more watchful eye on my government, particularly with the state legislature. My first interest was in the bills that were introduced in the RI legislature, but as I kept reading the journals online I noticed that although they listed the roll call votes of the Yeas and Nays, they never listed the number of missed roll call votes… which seemed to be a lot in most cases. RI only records its votes in the journals and doesn’t list individual legislator votes, so I began to record all legislator votes myself in 2007 to see what the overall result was.

"The results were kind of shocking, but I thought maybe it was par for the course, so I looked at other state legislatures… I blogged about it here if you are interested:


"What I found was that in most cases in New England, the RI House and Senate far exceeded its sisters’ chambers. I then looked outside of New England with my view limited by only those state legislatures that post the results online. I picked two - North Carolina and North Dakota; and it seems that their missed roll call votes were nowhere near Rhode Island’s percentage.

"I plan on publishing the RI legislators' votes online in the near future, but I’m still working on a few things. One of which is the RI 2006 Session which seems to be the same result as 2007 as they relate to missed roll call votes. Great blog and great site."

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