Who has the decisive vote in the Utah legislature?

In 2011 the legislators with the most floor power were Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Don Ipson.

If we look at floor votes in the Utah House and Senate, who are the most powerful legislators? Hint: It’s not the Speaker or the Senate president.

What’s a “floor power” score?

First, let me explain what I’m doing. For each member of the Utah legislature, I calculated a “floor power” score. Floor power is a number between 0 and 100, representing the percentage of floor votes where each legislator got his or her way.

For example, suppose you vote “aye” on a bill that passes. You got your way. Now suppose you vote “nay” on a bill that passes. You didn’t get your way. If you get your way on 85% of your votes, then your floor power score is 85.

In calculating these scores, I ignore the MANY votes where 80% or more of legislators voted the same way. (If I didn’t omit lopsided votes, then the scores wouldn’t be very interesting.) As a shorthand, I’ll say I’m looking at floor power only in contested votes.

Who has the most power in floor votes?

In 2011 the legislators with the most floor power were Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Don Ipson. Let’s break it down by chamber.

The Senator with the most floor power was Stuart Adams. He got his way in contested floor votes 96.3% of the time. He was closely followed by Curt Bramble (95.7%), Wayne Niederhauser (92.9%), Mark Madsen (92.7%), and Jerry Stevenson (90.3%).

The most powerful Representative was Don Ipson (91.2%), the only Representative to get his way in more than 90% of contested floor votes. Rounding out the top 5 are Greg Hughes (87.8)%, Curt Webb (87.7%), Jeremy Peterson (87.4%), and Kraig Powell (85.7%).

Meanwhile, Senate President Michael Waddoups (81.7%) ranks 32nd of 104 legislators, 15th of 29 Senators, and 15th of 22 Senate Republicans. House Speaker Becky Lockhart (70.5%) ranks 64th of 104 legislators, 45th of 75 Representatives, and 45th of 59 House Republicans.

If you want to see floor power rankings for all 104 legislators in 2011, or if you want to see scores from 2007-2010, you can find the complete Utah legislature floor power rankings at my other website.

What does it mean?

It means that it’s one thing to be decisive in floor votes, but quite another thing to be decisive overall. One thing that political science research teaches us is that we can expect the “median voter“–the one smack in the ideological middle–to have the most influence on a vote, and that’s what we’re seeing here.

Let’s take a look. Based on 2010 floor voting records, I calculated ideology scores for all legislators who served in 2010. (I’ll calculate 2011 scores soon, but let’s use 2010 for illustration.) These scores range from 0 (extremely liberal) to 100 (extremely conservative). You can read more about these scores by clicking here.

The median score in Utah’s 2010 House was 65.3. Half of legislators were more liberal, half were more conservative. If you had a score of 65.3 in 2010, your predicted floor power in 2010 would have been 80.1%, other things being equal. But suppose your ideology score were 10 points away from the median–that is, suppose your score were 75.3 or 55.3. Then your predicted floor power would have been only 73.0%.

The figure below (click to enlarge) shows the actual data from 2010. Each dot is a legislator. The legislator’s dot is further right if the 2010 ideology score (x-axis) was more conservative, and the legislator’s dot is further up if the 2010 floor power score (y-axis) was higher. The red line shows you where the median legislator’s ideology (65.3) falls on the x-axis. You can see that floor power is highest for those with an ideology close to the median.

Floor power and ideology, 2010

Are the Speaker and President really that weak?

Of course not. Most power in the legislature is exercised behind the scenes. The Speaker and the President play a decisive role (together with the Rules Committee) in deciding which bills will even come to a vote. Although they have little influence in whether a vote passes or not, legislative leaders have far more influence in whether a vote happens or not.

I’m still gathering data for my “backdoor power” scores. I’ll post them when they’re ready. But I expect that leaders in both chambers will fare much better in backdoor power than in floor power.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate 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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