5

I live in a state where it is taken for granted that one party will be in the majority in the state legislature and the governor will always be a member of that party. The specific district I live in however is one that always elects a member of the opposite party to represent it in the state government.

A certain activist running for state legislature changed parties from the one that always wins in the district to the one that has the majority in the state capital. He is not claiming to having changed his political views and does not deny that he may end up voting for things he is personally opposed to as a result of his new party loyalty. However he is arguing that everyone should vote for him because by electing a representative who is a member of the party in control , he will have far more ability to accomplish things for and bring money into the district. By being a member of the majority he will have an easier time getting the governors ear, he will have far more people willing to cosponsor legislation with him and vote for it when it comes to the floor. He is going so far as to claim as the minority party in a state legislature has token representation but no actual power. Their representation is of little more political power than a public demonstration. Etc

From a political perspective is he correct?

5
  • Does this not make the assumption that parties in the US vote as a bloc, something that is routinely shown to not be true in Congress?
    – uberhaxed
    Commented May 27 at 21:10
  • I don't know about state senates, but in some legislatures jobs are given out on the basis of party membership (e.g. committee seats and chairs being portioned out between parties, maybe other roles too; the governing party is also much more likely to nominate a member of their party than an independent to many positions). There may also be issues regarding state funding: some parliaments give more money to parties than to individuals. But it's going to vary a lot, so you might want to narrow it down.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 30 at 14:19
  • Is this argument being made at the primaries or the actual election? With the hyper-charged partisanship these days, it's odd to see a crossover member hold much appeal to primary voters (esp. on the "nudge, nudge, you know how I'll be voting"). But then if it's the actual election to office, was there a primary to contend with and how did they make it through? Commented May 30 at 16:43
  • Actual election. There is no primary taking place. No one else is interested in running on a ticket that under normal circumstances is assured of losing before the election even starts.
    – Schmerel
    Commented May 30 at 17:14
  • @StuartF Committee seats and chairs are often determined by the majority party but being a declared member of that party does not guarantee one a seat. Recent examples include Liz Cheney, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and George Santos. (Santos stepped down before he was stripped of the assignments.)
    – doneal24
    Commented May 31 at 17:26

4 Answers 4

8

Well, it varies state by state, depends on how much of a minority the minority party is sitting at and it varies by subject:

Just as an example, a number of states require supermajorities to increase taxes.

Most states with supermajority requirements impose them only in limited circumstances, but in seven states, the constitution requires a supermajority vote of each house, plus the governor’s signature, to enact any bill that includes a tax increase. Delaware, Mississippi, and Oregon require a three-fifths vote of each house, while Arizona, California, Nevada, and Louisiana require a two-thirds vote of each house.

So the answer would depend on your state and the subject, at the very least.

Also, the claim that the minority doesn't matter depends on the majority party's representatives voting as a block. That's not always the case, so a few dissidents plus minority opposition can change outcomes:

Arizona's Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday voted to repeal a Civil War-era abortion ban, one week after a similar motion passed the GOP-controlled state House. Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs said she will sign the bill on Thursday.

Two Republicans, TJ Shopes and Shawnna LM Bolick, joined all 14 Democrats to pass the measure.

After two failed attempts, three Republicans in the state House joined all the Democrats in successfully voting to repeal the law last week, sending it to the Senate.

0
1

He's not particularly correct, no.

Party Affiliation matters more in some states than in others but by and large the United States' system of representation is one of individual representatives. Parties do not have the ability to compel loyalty from their rank and file and so are only able to encourage as much by granting or withholding various benefits - typically space on the agenda and/or financial support for campaigning.

For this reason, switching parties is only meaningful if one's ideology has actually shifted. Just because you don the other team's jersey doesn't obligate them to treat you as a teammate. There may exist rules about caucusing that would provide a marginal benefit of physically placing the representative in question in the room where agenda planning is happening - but as an elected representative he's already had access to all of those same people as they're all members of the body at large. If they weren't going to listen to him then, there's no particular reason for them to listen to him now.

Party leadership is under zero obligation to reward his switch of allegiance, especially if he fails to behave as leadership would like. So whatever marginal benefit he gains for the minority party is coming at the cost of material support for the majority agenda, presumably at the cost of the minority's agenda. Without specifics I can't say for certain but I would bet with confidence that the majority is getting the better end of that trade, by far.

Meanwhile the minority-party's legitimacy (which is already limited, given your description) is further undermined by the defection.

These are less the acts of a political realist and more the acts of someone interested in advancing their own career after coming to the conclusion that minority-party affiliation makes such a career basically a dead-end.

It is entirely possible that he is correct about the minority party having little to no political power, especially if the majority party has a consistent track record of supermajority status. Defection, however, does not change this unless the majority party has interesting factionalism going on within it - at which point, as others have pointed out, the minority party no longer suffers from abject impotence since there's a pool of potential single-vote defectors that can be peeled off from the majority.

The governor is unlikely to seriously give the rep more time or consideration - he knows who this person is, and knows that he's changed party affiliation once (and thus is more prone to do so again). Nobody trusts a turncoat.

For these reasons, and numerous others, the argument your rep is making falls into 'extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence to support it.'

3
  • 1
    Like when Liz Cheney turned against Trump, the fact that she still identified as a Republican didn't help her much.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 29 at 17:43
  • He made it clear that he IS going to go along with the majority party even when he personally is opposed to their legislation. He argues that in the end it will pass anyway so why not get what we can. He hinted at backroom deals with party leaders in exchange for flipping a seat reliably held by the other side
    – Schmerel
    Commented May 30 at 16:20
  • 1
    @Schmerel "It will pass anyway," is a self-fulfilling prophecy in this case. Moreover, the margin by which things pass has impacts on the contents of those things - majorities with broader margins can be much bolder. He's wrong about his participation adding no value for the majority. As I conclude: he's basically told you he's a career politician looking to make friends, rather than someone honestly representing the interests of his constituents. Commented May 30 at 18:56
1

How much power a minority party has depends on the state constitution and the circumstances of the moment.

Yes, the politician you described is absolutely correct.

When Americans think of a voting body, they tend to think of voting in clubs they've been members of, or student government. In these kind of organizations, each individual member votes based primarily on his own wisdom, principles, etc. The agenda is set by the members: Usually any member can make a motion. Often this is the first time most of the members have heard this motion, so the debate involves discussing the implications of the proposal, how it would work in practice, etc. Many if not most members will decide whether they are for or against based on what is said in the debate.

That is just not how Congress and state legislatures work. They are dominated by political parties and party leadership. Whichever party has a majority picks the leaders -- the "speaker of the house" or whatever his title is, and various other leadership positions. The leaders then decide the agenda. When a motion is introduced, everyone already knows what it is about and 99% have made up their minds before it reaches the floor. The purpose of debate is not to convince members to change their minds but to produce sound bites for the media back home. I recall a friend of mine who was a lobbyist once commented that a certain bill was very unusual because members of the legislature actually changed their minds because of things said in debate.

Some independents proudly say that they are not bound to any party and they vote for the best candidate regardless of party. This sounds very sophisticated but in real life is simply naive. Suppose, for example, that you are very ... let's say pro-gun control. This is your #1 issue. In this particular election it happens that the Republican is pro-gun control and the Democrat is pro-gun rights. So, assuming your primary goal is to get gun control bills passed, would it make sense to vote for the Republican? The answer is no. As a Republican, he will vote for Republicans for the leadership positions. Let's suppose he is the deciding vote. (If he's not, then the whole question is moot.) So with his votes Republicans are elected to the leadership posts. Most of the Republicans are pro-gun, so they will simply not put any gun control measures on the agenda. Your candidate will never have a chance to vote on a gun control bill. The best he can hope for is that when a gun rights bill is introduced, he may convince the leadership to water it down to keep his vote. Or he may join the Democrats in voting against it and succeed in killing it.

Of course there are plenty of caveats to this. Voting in Congress and state legislatures is not PURELY by party line. A lot of what goes on in legislatures is the leadership struggling to get enough members on board to get things passed. If there are, say, 55 members from party A and 45 from party B, then if party A loses 5 members, then between the B people and the A dissidents, their bill won't pass. So the leaders must often make a bill more moderate than they would have liked, or add some provision that dissidents demand, to hold their majority together. But most of the time, the leaders can count on most members of their party voting the party line. Not always, but most of the time.

Something a minority can do is keep the majority accountable. They can use their position to highlight actions by the majority party that they disapprove of. Sometimes they can use parliamentary maneuvering to delay or even kill a motion they don't like.

0

Realpolitik view on how democracy works
Firstly, the politicians' words should never be taken at their face value - or at least should be treated with some skepticism. The politician in question has likely switched parties, because they think that this makes them more electable or they know that they would get elected anyway, but membership in the other party gives them some advantages - the party support, the access to the leadership, career options, etc. There was likely a behind-the-scenes negotiations with the party leadership before the move was announced and formalized.

Now this is presented to voters as a moral or/and principled choice, aimed at the benefit of the voters. There is nothing wrong with that - for most voters forget that democracy is not about electing good guys to do good things, but about motivating selfish but qualified people to do good things. (If there existed good politicians that could be genuinely trusted to do consistently good things, philosopher king or benevolent dictatorship would be by far superior form of government.)

Role of minority parties

What power do minority parties have in state legislatures?

On a more general level, minority parties are more meaningful in multi-party systems, where the ruling party might not have absolute majority and needs to make alliances with smaller parties to pass legislation. (This arrangement often leads to the opposite criticism, that it gives small parties outsized influence - not unlike that of one or two swing votes in the US senate.)

Even if unable to directly influence legislative process, small parties present their criticism of the legislation, and may affect it indirectly via pointing its weaknesses to the majority party voters. It is also necessary to keep in mind that, even in the US, the parties are far from homogeneous and party discipline may vary on issues - e.g., in the US Congress there are pro-gun Democrats, and anti-Trump Republicans.

Finally, a bit more of realpolitik: the presence of irrelevant minority parties may give semblance of democracy, where there is really none. This allows those who disagree with the policies let out their steam by voting for opposition candidates, rather than openly rebelling. E.g., this thread discusses minority parties in China.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .