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Honey, I Shrunk the Legislature

Posted by on June 11, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

A very encouraging post on the Freakonomics blog today mentions that the Maine state legislature recently proposed a bill that would unify the state’s Senate and House into one representative body, making Maine the second state in the union to go unicameral. Unfortunately, the Maine Senate voted it down.

I call this event unfortunate not just because of the obvious benefit of reduced government expenses (some predicted that moving to a unicameral measure in Maine would save taxpayers a whopping $11 million per two-year legislative session), but because the current bicameral system is truly redundant.

According to this Wikipedia entry, it used to be the case that:

[T]he basis of representation in most state legislatures was modeled on that of the U.S. Congress: the members of the smaller chamber represented geography and members of the larger chamber represented population. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court announced the one person, one vote standard and invalidated state legislative representation based on geography. (One person, one vote does not apply to the composition of the U.S. Senate because that chamber’s makeup is prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.)

So, we now have a case in which 49 states have two houses serving the same purpose: per-capita representation. Nebraska — the one place where this good idea of house unification has taken place — has also adopted nonpartisan elections. The best explanation I have heard for why nonpartisan elections are a bad idea came from David Stokes: Political parties provide a general identification of a particular candidate’s political stances, and help voters save precious time obtaining information about every person on the ballot. Stokes has also written about the problems with nonpartisan elections, as well as ways to improve the cost-effectiveness of state government — right here in Missouri.

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