We now have the fewest freshmen ever in the Utah House

Every incumbent on yesterday’s ballot won.

This post is based on preliminary election results. Provisional and absentee ballots remain to be counted.

When it convenes in January, Utah’s House of Representatives will have fewer freshmen on the floor than it has ever had since statehood. Ever. Yesterday’s elections set a record for low turnover in the Utah House. There will be 14 new faces (out of 75 seats), but only 12 can be considered freshmen. (The 13th and 14th, Brad King and Brad Daw, have served in the House previously.)

Because the size of the House grew gradually from statehood until the 1970s, we have to make these comparisons in percentage terms. The 12 freshmen represent 16% of the chamber. Only three other elections since statehood have produced fewer than 20% of seats held by freshmen. All three are in the recent past. The 2009 session had 17% freshmen, and the 1999 and 2007 sessions tied with 19% freshmen.

None of this is new, of course. Turnover has been declining in the Legislature for decades, a topic I have written about previously (in Nov 2012, May 2012, and March 2011). The following figure shows the trend in the House graphically. I plot a point for each odd-numbered year depicting the percent freshmen in the House following each even-numbered election. The first Legislature after statehood convened for a one-year term in 1896 following special 1895 elections. This figure begins in 1897, following the November 1896 elections–the first election after statehood when incumbent could have appeared on the ballot.

Turnover in the Utah House of Representatives, 1897-2015

Turnover in the Utah House of Representatives, 1897-2015

Turnover rates declined steadily from statehood until the 1980s. The decline has stabilized since the 1980s, perhaps because we are approaching a natural minimum. We are now in an era when low turnover is the norm.

Can incumbents lose anymore?

In total, yesterday’s elections produced turnover in 14 House districts (out of 75) and 2 Senate districts (out of 29, though only half were on the ballot). Yet none of these 16 changes came because of an incumbent’s general election loss. Every incumbent on yesterday’s ballot won.

Some incumbents had a scare, of course. Rep. Larry Wiley defeated his Republican challenger by only 33 votes, eking out a 50.5%-49.5% win. But like every other incumbent on yesterday’s ballot, he won. (This result could change as provisional and absentee ballots are counted over the next few days.)

This year’s only incumbent losses came last spring. Jim Bird, Jerry Anderson, and Dana Layton lost their seats to intraparty challengers. Richard Greenwood bowed out ahead of the convention in the face of looming defeat. That means only 4 of this year’s 16 changes came because of an incumbent’s nomination defeat. The other 12 came only because incumbents chose not to seek reelection.

With the Legislature’s high workload and low pay, it’s common to see so many retirements. But this year’s record-setting lack of House freshmen demonstrates just how much legislative turnover is driven by incumbents’ decisions to retire rather than by election results.

Is this bad?

Assessing low turnover is tricky business. On the one hand, elections should be competitive enough that enduring shifts in public opinion can successfully produce new legislators in office. On the other hand, excessive turnover can produce an inexperienced legislative body prone to hyperpartisanship and legislative errors.1 It’s not immediately clear what the best balance is between turnover and experience.

As a comparison point, Utah’s turnover has not declined to levels seen in the US House of Representatives. Yesterday’s elections produced only 13% turnover in the US House. (Only 394 of 435 US Representatives sought election, of whom 4 lost in primaries and 11 lost yesterday.) Though the Tea Party years produced marginally higher turnover–22% in 2010 and 18% in 2012–preceding years were closer to yesterday’s total (12% turnover in 2002, 10% in 2004, 14% in 2006, 13% in 2008).2

Though there is a long-term trend of decreasing turnover in the Utah House, it has not reached the level seen in the US House.

(This post was updated to correct the omission of Brad Daw.)

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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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