Are Utah’s legislators skipping votes?

Legislators are more likely to be absent than to vote “no.”

A legislator’s most visible job is to cast votes in the legislature on behalf of his or her constituents, yet it turns out that Utah’s legislators miss a LOT of votes.

Each year’s general session of the Utah legislature lasts a mere seven weeks. During the 2011 session, 651 separate roll call votes were held on the floor of the Utah House; on average, 7.1% of Representatives (i.e. 5.3 Reps) missed each vote. Meanwhile, 940 votes were held in the Utah Senate; on average, 14.4% of Senators (i.e. 4.2 Senators) missed each vote.

These statistics are from the 2011 general session, but 2011 was not unusual. If I look at all the votes from the 2007 through 2011 sessions, I find that an average vote in the House has a 7.3% absentee rate, while an average vote in the Senate has an 11.2% absentee rate. Overall, looking across both chambers, the average absentee rate is 9.6%.

Something stranger: Missed votes are even more common than “no” votes. If we look at the 361,854 individual votes cast between the 2007 and 2011 general sessions, there were 307,820 “yes” votes (85.1%), 22,715 “no” votes (6.3%), and 31,319 absent votes (8.7%). Legislators are more likely to be absent than to vote “no.”

(To be clear, I’m looking only at floor votes, not committee votes. I’m also looking only at roll call votes on complete bills; I’m not looking at votes to amend a bill, or at votes on other motions. I would imagine that absenteeism is far higher in the sorts of votes that I’m not looking at.)

Of course, absentee rates vary widely when we look across the 2007 through 2011 sessions. There were votes in both chambers with 0% absent. But there have also been votes with 44.8% absent, which surely violates the legislature’s quorum rules.

The table below should give you a sense for how common absenteeism is. The figures are percentiles. In the Utah House, 5 percent of votes had 1.3% (or less) of Representatives absent; 10 percent of votes has 2.7% (or less) absent; 25 percent of votes had 4.0% (or less) absent; and so on. At the median (the 50th percentile), 6.7% were absent. That means half the votes in the House had less than 6.7% absent, and half the votes had more than 6.7% absent.

Percentile Utah House Utah Senate
5th 1.3% absent 0.0% absent
10th 2.7% 3.4%
25th 4.0% 6.9%
50th (median) 6.7% 10.3%
75th 9.3% 13.8%
90th 13.3% 20.7%
95th 14.7% 24.1%

The Senate clearly has higher absenteeism than the House at almost every percentile. The 90th percentile is particularly interesting. In the Utah Senate, 90 percent of votes had fewer than 20.7% absent. Let’s turn that around. In fully 10 percent of the Senate’s votes between 2007 and 2011, more than 20.7% of Senators were absent during the vote.

I’ve shown in this post that there’s a lot of absenteeism in the Utah legislature. I haven’t offered an explanation as to why. Not yet, anyway.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways we can explain absenteeism. First, we can ask which votes get skipped the most. Second, we can ask which legislators skip the most votes. If you check back over the next few days, you’ll see posts addressing both those questions. I’ll also post a table showing exactly how many votes each legislator has missed over the past five years. Stay tuned.

Update: See “When do Utah’s legislators skip votes?” for an answer to the first question.

Update #2: See “Which legislators miss the most votes?” for the data on each legislator.

Update #3: See “Why do legislators skip votes?” for a preliminary look at the second question.

Shout out: It was conversations with a former student, Dan Birdsall, that got me thinking about this topic. Although the analysis is mine, I should give him credit for inspiring me to collect this data.

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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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4 Responses to Are Utah’s legislators skipping votes?

  1. Johnny Anderson says:

    You provided a ranking for the idealogical scores, how about a ranking for these? If you already have that data could you email me? Thanks.

  2. Jesse Harris says:

    My gut tells me that legislators are likely to skip votes on bills that are going to easily pass figuring their limited time is better spent doing other things. It’s the same reason many voters skip an election if they don’t feel that it’s going to be close.

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