Voting Behavior in the Wisconsin Legislature

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Voting Behavior in the Wisconsin Legislature: A Database

ProJect Lead

Jacob O. Stampen (BIO)

Professor Emeritus, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
Visiting Researcher, WISCAPE
University of Wisconsin-Madison


The activities of elected officials pursuing ideology-driven agendas are a mainstay of daily news reporting but not scientific analysis. And due to a lack of time and resources, most citizens are ill equipped to discover for themselves how adequately the people they elect are representing them.

This database
is intended to help interested citizens, journalists, policy analysts and students elevate the discourse on Wisconsin politics. It organizes publicly available information about legislators and their voting behavior in ways that facilitate cross-sectional and longitudinal perspectives on the behavior of individual legislators, coalitions of legislators, and political parties. Specifically, the database can be used to assess the impact of legislative behavior on bills related to a variety of policy areas, including healthcare, K-12 education, and WISCAPE’s primary focus, postsecondary education.

This project is a follow-up to a previous WISCAPE report, Hard Times in America's Laboratory for Democracy: Wisconsin Legislative Politics 1966 and 2006, which uses an earlier version of this database to analyze roll-call votes and legislators’ background characteristics to identify and assess changes in the behavior of a political system of vital importance to the postsecondary education enterprise.

The current database includes final floor votes in the assemblies and senates of five Wisconsin state legislative sessions between January 2003 and March 2012. It also includes information drawn from the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau and other sources on lobby ratings and private funding for individual legislators. The data is organized into Excel spreadsheet matrices with legislators listed alphabetically in the far left column and background characteristics and votes on individual bills arrayed horizontally. Code books for each house and session explain the placement of information in the matrices. All materials can be accessed at the database web page at  the UW-Madison Data and Information Services Center (DISC).

Past and future legislative sessions will be added to the archive as they become available and can be placed in consistent formats.

The following five examples illustrate specific ways in which to use the database:

  1. Cluster analysis (ward linkage with Euclidian distance) of final floor votes on all bills contested by at least 5% of voting legislators can identify the underlying structures and agents (e.g., parties, sub-parties, factions, coalitions, and voting clusters) of a legislative system. Principal component factor analysis and other statistical techniques can shed further light on inter- and intra-party relationships.
  2. Legislators’ background characteristics and their connections with specific coalitions can be analyzed to yield important insights into patterns of individual and group interactions, activities, and shared beliefs. Depending on the nature of the legislative system, groups may be composed of people of the same political party, or membership might reflect shared cultural, occupational, or regional characteristics that cross party lines.  Still another possibility is assessing voting behavior based on similar ratings by special interest groups.  
  3. Simply reordering assembly and senate data elements according to the results of statistical analysis (e.g., members according to similarity of voting behavior and bills by similar treatment) will provide a great deal of information about legislators’ policy agendas and public policy preferences.
  4. Ratings of individual legislators by lobby groups can be analyzed to provide important insights about the content of public policies and government actions. Such information can also be used to evaluate the quality of news coverage.
  5. Employing what researchers have learned from legislative studies on related topics to any analyses conducted with this database can further illuminate understanding. Well-developed conceptual frameworks can greatly enhance perspective. Scott Morgenstern, Patterns in Legislative Politics: Roll-Call Voting in the United States and Latin America (2004 New York: Cambridge University Press) is particularly useful.

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