Analysis of voting patterns in the 2018 Utah Legislature

The Utah Legislature concluded its 45-day General Session last Thursday at midnight. Once again, I’ve scraped the voting records to produce this statistical summary.

Update (3/14/2018): The Utah Legislature’s website initially showed HB457 as having passed. Their records were corrected a few days after the session ended (and after I posted this) to show that it did not receive its final vote before the constitutional deadline of midnight on March 8. Thus, the total number of passed bills is 533, not 534. I have not made changes to this post, but I have corrected the underlying data tables that are available at my other website.

Number of bills considered and enacted

There was a great deal of hype before and during the session about legislators preparing a record number of bills, and one unnamed legislator planning as many as 83.

It appears, though, that legislators reached the natural limit for bill introductions and passages long before 2018. Legislators may have filed behind-the-scenes preparatory work on a record 1,359 bills this year, but in the end only 817 bills were actually introduced–in line with bill introductions from the past several years. (Throughout this post, click on charts to enlarge them.)

Let’s be clear: 817 bills is a tremendous number to consider in a 45-day session, and introducing so many bills places tremendous pressure on vetting. Considering 817 bills–and passing 534 of them, one shy of last year’s record 535–requires forcing many of them through in an awful hurry. The average enacted bill aged only 16.2 days before its first floor vote, and 26.9 days before its final vote.

Running up the score? The most active bill sponsors in 2018

Rep. Steve Eliason introduced the most bills this year (25), passing 16, followed by Sen. Todd Weiler (21, passing 17); Sen. Wayne Harper (19, passing 16); and Sen. Daniel Thatcher (18, passing 16). (I exclude floor sponsorship and cosponsorship here; this is primary sponsorship only.)

Several legislators tied for 5th place with 17 bill introductions: Sen. Curt Bramble (passed 16/17), Sen. Karen Mayne (passed 15/17), Rep. Mike McKell (passed 11/17), and Rep. Stephen Handy (passed 10/17).

Together, these 8 legislators introduced 151 bills. That is, 8% of legislators introduced 18% of bills.

No legislator introduced zero bills except for Rep. Lynn Hemingway, who missed the entire session due to his wife’s grave illness; Rep. Jon Stanard, who resigned mid-session; and Rep. Travis Seegmiller, who filled Standard’s seat halfway through the session. But three legislators introduced only 1 bill: Rep. Susan Duckworth (passing 0), Rep. Susan Hollins (passing 1), and Rep. Keith Grover (passing 1).

Find complete bill sponsorship statistics for each legislator here.

Late bill introductions

With only 7 weeks in the General Session, legislators needs to have their bills ready on day 1 in order to have sufficient vetting time. They did better this year than in a long time, with 392 bills ready to introduce in week 1. That’s the most introductions we’ve seen since the Legislature changed the General Session’s start date in 2009. (Oddly enough, moving the start date *back* a week in 2009 caused bills to be ready *later* in the session rather than earlier, something I’ve written about before.)

At the same time, we still saw an awful lot of bill introductions in the session’s second half: 146 bills were introduced in the final three weeks, much more than last year’s 108, though still an improvement over 2011-2016. Simply put, if we’re going to have a 45-day session, then more bills need to be ready to go on day 1.

Bipartisan consensus remains the rule

As in the past, bipartisan consensus remains the rule for floor votes in the Utah Legislature. In 2018, the average Utah House floor vote witnessed 94% of the body voting together–a figure that rises to 97% in the Senate. These high rates have been common for many years in the Legislature, as the figure shows.

The flip side is that party-line votes, in which a majority of Republicans vote against a majority of Democrats, are rare. Only 1 in 10 House votes were decided along party lines in 2018, dropping to 1 in 20 in the Utah Senate. These figures were even lower than usual, but not by much–we’ve always been pretty close to the floor by this metric.

It’s not kumbaya for everybody, of course. When party-line votes do arise, the most loyal partisans were Sen. Ralph Okerlund and Rep. Jon Stanard (who voted with their party 100% of the time on party-line votes), Rep. Keith Grover (98.4%), Rep. Mike Noel (96.%), Sen. Don Ipson (95.9%), and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck (95.8%).

The least loyal partisans were Sen. Brian Zehnder (43.8%), Rep. Becky Edwards (59.4%), Rep. Bruce Cutler (62.5%), and Rep. Craig Hall (62.9%). Find full rankings here. (Curiously, Sen. Zehnder’s sub-50 score means that on party-line votes, he voted with Democrats more than with his own party.)

For the curious, the closest six votes in the 2018 House were on HB197 (36-34-4), HB68 (34-37-3), HB164 (33-36-5), HB313 (38-33-4), HB323 (38-33-4), and HB471 (34-39-2). The closest six votes in the 2018 Senate were on HB116 (11-11-7), HB396 (12-12-5), HJR11 (12-12-5), SB52 (13-13-3), SB91 (12-12-5), HB309 (11-12-6). Find a longer list of close votes from each chamber here.

A fair chance for Democrats

Democrats hold just under one-fifth of the seats in each chamber of the Utah Legislature. That means Republicans control each chamber’s floor debates, Rules Committee, and standing committee chairmanships, any of which could be used to prevent Democratic-sponsored bills from even coming to a vote. If the Democrats were a large enough minority to threaten Republicans, then we would surely see Republicans using these majority powers to stifle Democrats, much as we see in Congress.

We don’t, though. Utah Republicans feel no threat from Utah Democrats, so they give most Democratic bills a fair shake. In 2018, 66% of Republican-sponsored bills passed, compared to 57% of Democratic bills. We’ve seen smaller gaps–6% in 2016–but this 9% gap is about as small as it gets. House Speaker Hughes and Senate President Niederhauser are loyal Republicans, yet they do not use their power to stifle Democrats. (Of course, Democrats’ high success rates, along with the low party-line voting rates reported above, also reflect a Democratic strategy of “go along to get along,” where they save their political capitol for their highest priority issues.)

Legislators abdicate tough choices to leadership

Utah legislators are “Utah nice.” That is, many prefer not to publicly vote against their colleagues’ bills. In 2018, only 1% of Utah Senate floor votes had a negative outcome; it was 3% in the Utah House. So if 817 bills were introduced but only 534 passed, what happened to the other 283 bills? Funny you should ask……

When bills are introduced on time so that they can receive their committee hearing early in the session, legislative rules require all bills to receive floor consideration in the order they emerge from committee. But at the end of the session, that goes away–both chambers wipe their calendars and send all remaining bills to the leadership-aligned Rules Committee for prioritization. From that point forward, bills are heard in the order prioritized by each chamber’s leadership. And since 301 of the 534 bills (56%) that passed in 2018 received didn’t pass until the last week, nearly all bills that pass had to survive this sifting process.

As such, we might conclude that legislators have collectively abdicated to legislative leadership their responsibility to vote “no.” True, committees take an active role in amending bad bills into something more palatable, but for the most part, bills fail not because they were voted down, but rather because leadership did not prioritize them. I leave it to the reader to decide whether rank-and-file legislators should take a more active role deciding which bills pass. In any event, this figure shows that low failure rates have been common for a long time:

Legislators who vote “nay”

Some legislators vote “nay” more than others, of course. This year, the most “nay” votes were cast by Rep. Marc Roberts (13.9%), Rep. Dan McCay (13.6%), Rep. Brian Greene (13.2%), and mid-session newcomer Rep. Travis Seegmiller (13.1%).

“Nay” votes are less common in the Senate; the highest “nay” voter there, Sen. Margaret Dayton, voted only 9.6% “nay,” which would rank only #11 in the House. After her, it’s a long way down to Sen. Jim Dabakis (6.8% “nay”), #2 in the Senate but tied for #32 if he served in the House.

The other end of the rankings are dominated by Senators, though. The #1 ranking for least “nay” votes goes to Sen. Ralph Okerlund and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, tying at 0.2% “nay.” They are followed by Sen. Daniel Thatcher (0.4%), Sen. Stuart Adams (1.1%), and Sen. Jerry Stevenson (1.2%).

The fewest “nay” votes in the House were cast by Speaker Greg Hughes, with 1.5% “nay.”

Absentee rates

Each chamber had a legislator miss a large number of votes due to unfortunate circumstances. In the House, Rep. Lynn Hemingway missed the entire session due to a family medical issue; in the Senate, Sen. Ralph Okerlund had health issues of his own. I omit them from this discussion.

The best attendance awards go to Rep. Kay Christofferson (missed only 0.4% of votes), Rep. Susan Pulsipher (0.7%), Rep. Marie Poulson and Rep. Jefferson Moss (tied at 0.8%), and Rep. Mike Winder (1.0%). Given the insanely fast pace of floor voting in the session’s final days, even using the restroom can mean missing a few votes, so these attendance rates are unquestionably impressive.

At the other extreme we find the usual suspects: Legislative leaders and budget chairs, who miss lots of floor time while negotiating compromises and finalizing the budget. Other than Rep. Hemingway and Sen. Okerlund, the most floor votes were missed by Senate budget chair Jerry Stevenson (32.6%), House Speaker Greg Hughes (30.5%), Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (29.7%), House vice budget chair Mike Schultz (26.4%), House majority whip Francis Gibson (23.0%), and House budget chair Brad Last (22.6%). Find absentee rates for all legislators here.

Ideology scores

And now we come to ideology scores. I calculate these each year using the W-NOMINATE algorithm developed by Keith Poole and Hal Rosenthal in their study of Congress. You can read about their efforts here. It seems that these get misused in campaign mailers and occasionally by the media when I release them each year, so let me stress some caveats.

(1) Scores have no scale. I constrain them to fit between -100 (relatively more liberal) and +100 (relatively more conservative), but there is no such thing as a “liberal” or “conservative” score. The ideology that corresponds to a -100 or +100 score will depend entirely on the mix of people serving in the Legislature at a given time.

(2) Scores are calculated separately for each chamber and each year. Thus, you cannot directly compare a House score to a Senate score, or a 2017 score to a 2018 score.

(3) You should not brag about having the “most conservative” or “most liberal” voting record in your campaign materials, especially if your intent is to imply that “most conservative” means “most faithful to the Republican platform.” A score of +100 could mean “most extreme” or “most beyond the mark” just as easily as it means “most faithful to conservative principles,” depending entirely on what the range of people in the Legislature was this year. You need to look at an individual’s actual voting record to decide whether it was “most faithful to party principles” as opposed to “most extremely beyond party principles.” Refer again to point #1.

(4) Zero does not mean “moderate,” and scores less than zero are not “liberal.” Scores have only relative meaning, not absolute meaning. Again, see point #1.

To be clear, you are committing statistical malpractice if you use these statistics in campaign materials or news reporting without putting them into context with caveats like those above, and you’d better believe I’m going to call you out for it.

Okay. Have I belabored this point enough? Here we go. The plot below depicts the distribution of ideology scores in the 2018 Utah House and Senate.

Two things to notice:

(1) Both chambers have a “bridge” legislator between the parties. In the House, that’s Democrat Susan Duckworth; in the Senate, it’s Republican Brian Zehnder, who, as noted earlier, voted with Democrats more than Republicans on party-line votes.

(2) In both chambers, there is much more ideological spread among Republicans than among Democrats. Remember, these scores can only detect differences that were reflected in actual floor votes. Ask yourself: In a supermajority Republican legislature, how much of the floor action is going to be over bills where the liberal and moderate wings of the Democratic party are at loggerheads and trying to find a compromise? None, right? Now ask yourself how many are going to split the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican party. Simply put, supermajority Republican control brings out factional disputes among Republicans while obscuring factional disputes among Democrats. Thus, year after year, these scores reveal much more ideological daylight between Republicans than between Democrats.

Within the House, the more extreme wing of the Republican party is anchored by Dan McCay (94), Brian Greene (90), Marc Roberts (90), Norm Thurston (76), Adam Robertson (76), and Karianne Lisonbee (74). The more moderate wing is anchored by Becky Edwards (-26), Craig Hall (-18), Eric Hutchings (-16), Bruce Cutler (-10), and Ray Ward (-10).

Within the Senate, the more extreme wing is anchored by Margaret Dayton (98), David Hinkins (90), Allen Christensen (90), and Deidre Henderson (88), with the more moderate wing anchored by Brian Zehnder (-55, with a score closer to Democrats than to the nearest Republican), Todd Weiler (2), Lyle Hillyard (5), and Gregg Buxton (15).

Find W-NOMINATE scores for all legislators (but only if you remember the caveats!!) here: House and Senate.

One more word about Sen. Zehnder. Though we cannot directly compare scores from different years, we can make reasonable statements about the relative position of a legislator compared to his peers in one year versus the next. In the figure below, the left panel shows the distribution of scores for the 2017 Senate, while the right panel shows the distribution for the 2018 Senate. At left, Sen. Brian Shiozawa was the most left-leaning Republican in 2017, with a score -23; when he resigned last December, he was replaced by Sen. Brian Zehnder, this year’s most left-leaning Republican, with a score of -55. Democrats appear to be targeting Zehnder’s seat; Kathie Allen and Kathleen Riebe have already announced candidacies, and Wayne Holland is rumored to be considering a run. I’ll let the reader work out the implications–both how these rumored runs may have impacted Sen. Zehnder’s voting behavior, and also how this voting record may impact these challenges.

Concluding remarks

If you read all the way to this point, you must be getting paid for it. Remember, the source statistics for everything in this post can be found here. If you plan to publicize a statistic, please double check it from that source, since I’ve probably made a typo or two in this post. I maintain this blog as a hobby, so I’m not exactly getting paid to go back and double check this post–but I use the underlying stats in my actual scholarly research, so I’m more careful with the source.

The mid-session change from Rep. Stanard to Rep. Seegmiller caused some weird glitches in my code, as did the full-session absence of Rep. Lynn Hemingway. Neither of those things has happened in the 12 sessions that I’ve been doing this. I think I caught and fixed all the errors, but please tell me if you spot something I missed.

And hey, let me end with this: Pre-order my book about Utah politics from Amazon, forthcoming this summer from the University of Nebraska Press. It will be the best book you ever read, obviously.

Possibly related posts:

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 Analysis of voting patterns in the 2018 Utah Legislature

  1. Josh Daniels says:

    Great analysis as always. I love this site. Thank you for doing this each year.

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