Tackling Grand Challenges: Home State Politics

By: Rachel Goodman, Graduate Student, International Studies; Suraj Thapa, Graduate Student, Global Economic Affairs

Do you know who your senators are? If you do, give yourself a pat on the back. If you don’t, don’t feel too bad. Many Americans don’t know the answer to this question. Luckily, thanks to the power of Google, you can find this information almost instantly. Now for a trickier question: do you know who your state legislators are? Who represents you and your family at the state level? If you know the answer to this question, give yourself an extra pat on the back. If you don’t, don’t stress. You’re in the majority. Most Americans have no clue who’s serving in their state legislature. It’s an often-overlooked level of government. However, our collective lack of knowledge about what happens in the halls of our state capitols is concerning. So many of the political decisions that affect our day-to-day lives are made in our home states, not in Washington, D.C. State lawmakers have a great deal of power over Medicaid, unemployment benefits, marijuana, guns, abortion, and voting rights. They decide how much money to allocate to education, they dictate access to birth control, and for many years they determined who was legally allowed to marry. Clearly, state legislatures matter. A lot.

It was the significance of state legislatures and the lack of recognition of that significance that drove us to begin the project that we titled “Home State Politics.” We were deeply concerned by the fact that the public lacks access to easily-digestible information about their legislators’ voting records and bill information. Although every state’s legislative website includes vote counts and bill descriptions, this information is rarely displayed or written in an accessible way. Similarly, academic researchers are unable to collect these data across different states and over time because of the massive time and money it takes to put together. Additionally, due to the sheer number of bills and resolutions proposed each legislative session, it is difficult for the public to monitor all legislation that will potentially impact them. Thus, our project sought to address these issues by extracting bill information and state legislators’ votes from state legislative websites and compiling this information into a larger dataset.

We initiated our project by focusing on two states: Idaho and Colorado. For both states, we extracted legislators’ information, including name, party, district, leadership position, counties, committee assignments, and more, depending upon availability. Similarly, we also gathered bill information such as bill number, bill status (lost or passed), sponsors, title, subtitle, committee, vote counts, and more, depending upon availability. Finally, we gathered how each legislator voted on each bill–i.e., yes, no, or absent.

The data are available for public and academic use freely in a github account linked here. However, as the project expands to incorporate other states and cover wider time periods, the data will be moved to a static website that is currently in the process of being built. Regardless of where the data are housed, however, we are committed to ensuring that the information remains free and easily accessible.

Although we’ve already collected a considerable amount of information, there is still a long road ahead of us. So, what’s next? Given our goal of making state politics more accessible to everyone, we will soon begin the process of categorizing bills so that we can classify votes. This will allow us to easily share information regarding how individual legislators vote on particular topics. For instance, once we’ve categorized the bills, we can identify how often each legislator votes to increase gun regulations vs decrease gun regulations, or how often a legislator votes for or against legalizing marijuana (in any form). Making this information available to the public will allow voters to more easily determine whether their elected officials are true representatives of the people’s will. As we continue working on this project, we hope that the data we collect and the information we provide serves to strengthen our democratic system by empowering those who are often underrepresented in state politics. If you are interested in joining our efforts to achieve this goal, please feel free to contact us at suraj.thapa@du.edu.

Editor’s Note: This work was supported with an ACE Student Scholars Grant, thanks to the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for DU Grand Challenges.

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