Do statistics (like absentee rates) matter in reelection campaigns?

I encourage voters to use these statistics to supplement other information, not to supplant it.

I calculate a lot of statistics about the Utah legislature. Lately, I’ve noticed various statistics being used in some of the nomination battles that are happening right now. Incumbent legislators are being confronted by challengers over their party support scores, their ideology scores, their absentee rates, their bill sponsorship activity, and so on.

I have mixed feelings about this politicized use of these statistics. On the one hand, I’m pleased to provide useful data that can serve as one additional tool in assessing legislators’ performance. On the other hand, I would encourage people not to focus so much on any particular statistic that they overlook nuance. It’s probably more important to ask your legislator what they think about specific issues than to base your decision on one of my statistics.

Let’s take an example that is being used in at least a couple different races right now: Absenteeism.

Certainly, casting votes is the defining aspect of a legislator’s job. At the same time, we have decided as a state (through our state constitution) to have a part-time legislature. Our state constitution limits the legislative session to 45 days. The result is that bills are heard rapidly on the floor, especially near the end of the session. Taking an urgently needed bathroom break can, at times, cause a legislator to miss a dozen votes. Serving in leadership, sponsoring a large number of bills, or sponsoring a single high-impact bill can also force a legislator to leave the floor at times in order to fulfill all their duties as a legislator. Thus, it would be silly to look only at a legislator’s absentee rate without also considering the reasons for that absentee rate.

I think it’s valuable to calculate absentee rates and other statistics to learn more about how our legislature works. That’s why I do it–to help us understand trends and such.

But here’s the punchline: I encourage voters to use these statistics to supplement other information, not to supplant it. If my statistics didn’t exist, then delegates would be asking legislators about their views on the issues, and they would base their votes on that. Maybe my statistics can supplement those sorts of discussion in some useful way, but they should not supplant it. Delegates should still ask legislators their views on issues, rather than neglecting that duty and focusing instead on some isolated statistic.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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One Response to Do statistics (like absentee rates) matter in reelection campaigns?

  1. Daniel B says:

    “There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics.” Twain

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