What Is It?
If you pay attention to the news, it might seem like everything is some inside game happening in Washington, D.C. But don’t let that distract you from where a lot of the real action is happening: state legislatures. Maybe your state capitol doesn’t feel quite as sexy as the setting of “House of Cards,” but what goes on there has a very direct impact on your life.
Most state legislatures have two chambers, just like Congress. Each one typically has a “lower” chamber (usually called the House or Assembly) and an “upper chamber” called the Senate. People elected to the Senate represent larger districts with more people than people elected to the House or Assembly (unlike the Senate in Washington, D.C., state senators represent specific districts, not everyone in the state).
Don’t just think of your state legislature as small-time Congress, because it can do a lot. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution outlines what kinds of matters state legislatures handle: “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” In other words, unless the Constitution explicitly grants a power to the federal government, it belongs to the states.
The state legislature also acts as a check on the executive branch (that’s the governor) and helps oversee state departments and agencies.
A handful of state legislatures meet year-round, while many only meet part of the year and a few get together just every other year. They vary widely in size too. Alaska, the largest state by geography, has 40 people serving in its House, while New Hampshire, with less land than almost all other states, has a 400-member House.
State legislatures also have a zany variety of rules for drafting and passing bills. In some states, bills that impact revenue have to start in the House and then move to the Senate. In other states, it doesn’t matter. Some legislatures have specific deadlines for when bills have to pass out of at least one chamber in order to have a chance at becoming law. In other legislatures, there are no set rules about how long bills can take to move through the process.
Why It Matters to You
In terms of how the government affects your day-to-day life, your state legislature is easily as important as Congress — if not more important. Plus, with so much division and gridlock in Washington, D.C., a lot of major issues are landing in state legislatures: abortion, transgender rights, public sector unions, and marijuana, just to name a few. Here are a few examples:
The 10th Amendment to the Constitution gives authority for maintaining and operating public schools to the states. Some state legislatures have gotten very involved in K-12 education in recent years, whether it’s looking at how to change how funding for schools is determined, updating academic standards, or banning the teaching of certain ideas like critical race theory.
Some state legislatures have taken aim at standardized tests, making them optional for public colleges and universities or even seeking to banish them altogether. Others are looking to forgive student loans or build out credential and certificate programs.
Some state legislatures have moved to cap the number of patients a nurse can care for in a hospital, fund or not fund Medicaid for more people, or to create a reporting system for a certain disease (Lyme disease, for example, which only crops up in some states).
It’s up to your state to ensure that nursing homes for senior citizens are safe and comply with state and federal health regulations. The people making sure those homes are up to snuff? They’re likely state employees or are licensed by a state agency. That means your state legislature has oversight and can look into problems.
How are your bridges and roads? Is that light rail stop ever coming to your neighborhood? The decisions your state makes — how much funding goes to transportation and which projects it prioritizes — are a big part of the answer.
State legislatures across the country are reclassifying certain crimes (like shoplifting and low-level drug offenses) as misdemeanors, enabling people on parole to vote, and allowing people with some felony drug convictions to receive food assistance.
You vote for your state legislators and members of Congress according to which district you live in. Guess who decides how those district maps are drawn? In most states, it’s your state legislature. (Learn more about the redistricting process here.) The way your state legislature draws districts shapes who gets elected to represent you and your neighbors.
How to Make an Impact
So here’s the crazy thing about state legislatures: even though they’re responsible for some of the things that touch your life most directly, they get much less attention than the U.S. Congress. As a result, much of their work happens with little public awareness or press coverage. When citizens decide to play an active role at the state level, they can really make an impact. Here’s what you can do:
If you’re concerned about an issue, chances are you’re not alone. Many bills are engineered by special interest groups (for better or for worse) but plenty grow out of conversations between legislators and their constituents. That’s where you come in. See a problem in your community? Tell your legislator. Have a solution? Tell your legislator.
Ear to the Ground
If you’re interested in a particular bill, you can usually monitor its progress on your state legislature’s website. You’ll be able to see when the bill is coming up for a hearing or a vote — or if it appears to be going nowhere. Keep tabs on the legislation you care about, then get in touch with your state legislators to find out where they stand on it. Urge them to take a position and push for action.
Speaking to a congressional committee in Washington isn’t something most people get to do, but state legislatures actually carve out time during committee meetings to hear from ordinary citizens. You can often register online to speak during the public hearing portion of the committee meeting, or submit written comments that the legislature enters into the official record. Committee meetings and hearings can be on a specific bill or more generally on an issue. Keep your eye on that committee schedule (it’s on your state legislature’s website) for your chance to speak up!
Meet You in the Lobby
Your mental picture of a lobbyist might be a deep-pocketed special interest trickster who bribes legislators in order to influence legislation that helps or hurts their clients. And yes, those people are out there. But citizens lobby for good things all the time, and you don’t have to be a pro to join the fun. Visit any statehouse during the legislative session and stand outside the chambers (you know, in the lobby). You’ll see ordinary citizens and countless advocacy groups milling around, trying to speak with legislators as they enter and leave. Whether it’s the AARP, Black Lives Matter, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the NRA, the Sierra Club — they’re all there to have face-to-face conversations with the people who vote on their issues. Get in there!
Enter the Fray
Your state representative and senator were elected to office and your vote can help keep them there, or kick them out. You can also get directly involved by supporting or opposing their campaign, or at least encouraging your friends, family, and neighbors to vote too. Turnout in state legislative races is ridiculously low, which means that your vote and your elbow grease can make a real difference.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. Check out these stories about citizens getting involved:
Citizen activists are leading the effort to legalize marijuana in Idaho. After facing setbacks at the state legislative level, they created a petition drive to get their issue on the ballot.
In 2020, Missouri voters passed Amendment 3, which put redistricting in the hands of a bipartisan commission. This reversed the decision voters made in 2018, which required that a nonpartisan demographer create districts that were as competitive as possible.
In New York, some voters were upset that a group of moderate Democrats in the state Senate was blocking progressive reforms by caucusing with the Republicans. Those voters got organized and ousted six of the group’s eight members in the 2018 election.
In Rhode Island, hundreds of people signed up to speak during an online public hearing to address pending gun control legislation. So many attended that the system kept crashing.
In Montana, dozens of hunters showed up at a legislative hearing to voice opposition to a bill that would loosen restrictions on elk hunting. Many hunters felt the bill would unfairly benefit wealthy landowners and out-of-state hunters.
In April of 2021, Maryland became the first state to get rid of protections for police officers due to the nature of their jobs. Advocates for police reform had pushed hard for the bill in their state legislature, while many law enforcement groups opposed it.