Does it matter that the Utah Senate votes twice on each bill?

There’s an odd thing about the Utah Legislature. The Utah House holds only one debate and vote on each bill, but the Utah Senate holds two debates and two votes on each bill.1

Let’s ask three questions about the Senate’s practice of voting twice on bills. First, does it cause Senators to skip the first vote, knowing they’ll have a chance to vote on the bill later? (It does, a little.) Second, do Senators just vote the same way both times they see a bill, or do we see real differences between the two voting outcomes? (They vote the same both times.) Third, do Senators seem to care about the requirement to hold two votes on each bill, or do they routinely waive this requirement? (They waive it almost half the time.) I’ve already told you the conclusions, so let’s dive in.

About the data (technical information)

I’ve got data on every floor vote held in the Utah Legislature from 2007 through 2013. (You’ll find lots of analysis of the voting data here.) To answer my first two questions, I look only at bills that did indeed undergo two floor votes.2

The Senate calls the first vote the “2nd reading” and the second vote the “3rd reading.” To avoid confusion, I will refer to them here as the first vote and second vote. (In the footnotes, which are more technical, I use “2nd reading” and “3rd reading.”)

Are Senators more likely to miss the first vote on a bill?

Yes. On average, 3.7% of Senators miss the first vote on a bill, but only 2.8% miss the second vote. Given that there are 29 Senators, that translates to one additional Senator on the floor during a bill’s second Senate vote. If you want more detail, you can see a post on this topic I wrote a couple years ago.

Do outcomes change much between the first and second vote on a bill?

Not really. Almost three-quarters (72%) of bills get the exact same vote margin on both Senate votes. (By margin, I mean the number of “ayes” as a percentage of the number of non-absent Senators, so the margin ranges from 0 to 100.) With the remaining 28% of bills, there is a bit of wobble but no clear trend; 14% do better on their second vote, but 14% do worse.

Most of the movement is trivial; with 93% of bills, the margin on the second vote is within 10 percentage points of the margin on the first vote. (To see how trivial a 10 percentage point movement is, read this.)

Here’s the most striking part, though: Although I identified a few dozen bills that failed on their first vote, I could not identify a single bill that failed on its second vote after having passed its first one. If the Utah Senate approves a bill on its first vote, you can be all but assured that the bill’s ultimate passage is a done deal.

Do Senators value the second reading calendar?

You’d have to ask them. The answer probably varies. But their behavior suggests that, at least as a body, Utah Senators aren’t particularly fond of the (self-imposed) requirement to hold two separate floor votes on each bill. From 2007-2013, Utah’s Senators waived this requirement for 43% of the bills they heard–sometimes by using the consent calendar process3, but more often by approving a motion to suspend the rules for a particular bill.4

Wrapping up

Utah Senators are (somewhat) more likely to miss a bill’s first vote than its second. Utah Senators have never (in the 2007 through 2013 general sessions) reversed their decision during a bill’s second vote. And Utah Senators routinely waive the requirement to vote twice on each bill, a decision that must be made on a bill-by-bill basis.

What purpose does the Senate’s two-vote requirement serve, then? I can think of one possibility that my dataset does not enable me to address.  When Senators like the general concept of a bill but have some nitpicky concerns, they often vote “aye on two” rather than simply “aye” during the bill’s first vote. “Aye on two” signals to the bill’s sponsor that a particular Senator will vote “nay” when the bill comes back for a final vote unless the bill receives some improvements.

Maybe “aye on two” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Senate never reverses itself during a final vote because Senators who care about getting their bills passed heed the “aye on two” warning and improve their bills before bringing them back. Unfortunately, official Senate records note only “aye” and “nay”; an “aye on two” vote gets recorded as an “aye.” As such, I can’t really test this hypothesis.

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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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