You are here

What Makes a State Legislature Popular?

There are indications that voters in Michigan and those nationwide as well have a negative view of their state’s Legislature, and with the winter’s increase in the novel Coronavirus raising more questions, are there possibilities the trends may intensify?

In new polling from the Texas Politics Project, only 28% of respondents showed approval for their state legislature. This is in spite of the fact that Republican priorities, such as stricter rules governing elections and $1.8 billion headed to the border for added security, have been signed into law. In Michigan, much of the news has been focused on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders regarding Coronavirus and the work of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC), a new body tasked with apportioning Michigan’s congressional, state Senate, and state House districts. Before voters approved the initiative, the redistricting process was controlled solely by the Michigan Legislature and its majority party. The shape of Michigan’s congressional, state House, and state Senate districts are changing, and it would be interesting to know what makes voters approve – or disapprove -- of their state legislature

In an article published in Legislative Studies Quarterly, researchers analyzed what factors identified in past literature contribute to the approval of state legislatures. [1]  One salient factor was the professionalism of the legislature — that is, the length of time that legislators have been on the job in elected positions and how hierarchical their staff and discourse within the chamber is. The authors demonstrate a negative relationship between the professionalism of the legislature and voter approval, with this effect much more pronounced among self-identified conservatives.

Michigan is an interesting case in this regard. Legislators serve for a constitutionally limited term. State senators and representatives are limited to a maximum of eight years and six years of service, respectively. This facilitates a revolving door of citizens transferring in and out of public service, which is indicative of a nonprofessional legislature.[1] However, the authors identify Michigan as electing a highly professional legislature due to members establishing hierarchies within their staff and adhering to many rules in their deliberations. Michigan is an outlier in this respect, which adds difficulty in identifying the reason Michigan’s Legislature is unpopular.

Many would argue that state legislative approval is dependent on the legislation passed and the actual policy such legislation facilitates, for example, whether the policy is ideologically congruent with the voting public. In Political Research Quarterly,[2] researchers found that though voters are not as responsive in using their vote to punish their state legislators as they are their congressmembers, they are still keenly aware of the policy outcomes in their state. The research further finds that legislative approval is dependent on the ideological congruency between public opinion and legislative policy outcomes. Michigan, especially in recent elections, has established itself as a swing state with the emergence of a seemingly even ideological split. The last two presidential elections in Michigan have ended with both candidates garnering less than half of the vote with only tens of thousands of votes determining Trump the victor in 2016 and Biden in 2020. The highly partisan nature of Michigan’s voters may add to the disdain for Michigan’s Legislature since Michigan’s electoral college delegates can be sent to the victor of a plurality vote and not a 50% majority. However, another factor identified in both articles may be more explanatory.

Congressional approval is heavily dependent on presidential approval. Likewise, state legislative approval shares the same relationship with its governor. To study the effect of professionalism, term limits, and other factors related to state legislative approval, the authors of both articles isolated gubernatorial approval from them in order to demonstrate an effect. Michigan has had its share of controversial governors recently. For example, Gov. Rick Snyder, state leader at the time of Flint, Michigan’s water controversy. More recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a leader in enforcing strict government control over social distancing during the pandemic, has been a controversial figure to many Michiganders. Michigan’s Legislature may suffer from Whitmer’s favorability, but this isn’t enough to explain the disdain for state legislatures in Cooperative Congressional Election Survey data – the largest and most comprehensive online survey of American voter’s opinions and ideology for the past two decades, and other studies entirely.

With the Coronavirus pandemic continuing to peak and valley and the redistricting process moving forward independent of the state Legislature, the approval of Michigan’s state Legislature could drastically change. Although Michigan’s Legislature bears many of the qualities people like, such as citizen legislators and term limits, its approval rating still suffers. Lower approval may play a role in the gridlock of advancing legislation through Lansing. Identifying and capitalizing on the factors, opinions, and variables that give state legislating bodies higher approval ratings in general may lead Michigan’s Legislature to be more successful and produce new laws and policies that have a positive impact on the state and its citizens.

Nick Pigeon is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Michigan State University and an IPPSR Public Policy Graduate Fellow. He is a campaign veteran who has helped elect candidates up and down the ballot at the local, state and national level.


[1] RICHARDSON, LILLIARD E., et al. “Public Approval of U.S. State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, Comparative Legislative Research Center, 2012, pp. 99–116,

[2] Langehennig, Stefani, et al. “State Policy Outcomes and State Legislative Approval.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 4, [University of Utah, Sage Publications, Inc.], 2019, pp. 929–43,