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Public database tracks legislative voting behavior

February 9, 2012

Several years ago, events in the state capitol left Jacob Stampen wondering about the health of Wisconsin’s political system.

Urged by curiosity and concern, he took a careful look at voting patterns in the state legislature, and his findings painted a troubling picture.

“There was a definite transition from voting behavior in the 1960s, with a wide variety of political coalitions voting in different ways on different bills, to today’s block voting where Democrats and Republicans seem to vote in line with their respective parties,” says Stampen, an emeritus professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and visiting researcher at WISCAPE.

The results of this initial study were presented in “Hard Times in America’s Laboratory for Democracy: Wisconsin Legislative Politics 1966 and 2006.”

Perhaps even more alarming than the rise of block voting, Stampen found a strong correlation between these votes and the positions of major lobbying organizations.

For example, Democratic votes show near perfect correlation with positions taken by AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and NARAL Pro Choice America, and Republican votes hardly vary from positions taken by Wisconsin Manufacturer’s and Commerce, Right to Life, and the National Rifle Association.

“It suggests that we don’t have a healthy political system in Wisconsin,” says Stampen. “And it prompts some critical questions. How well are our legislators representing the people who elect them? Is our Legislature for sale to the highest bidder?”

Given this state of affairs, Stampen set out to provide the citizens of Wisconsin with the means to answer these questions themselves. The result: an open access database of final floor votes from four Wisconsin state legislative sessions between January 2003 and December 2010. It also includes information, drawn from the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau and other sources, on lobby ratings and private funding for individual legislators.

According to WISCAPE Director Noel Radomski, the true utility of the database lies in the fact that it gathers publicly available information from a wide variety of sources and stores it all in one easily accessible place.

“The database provides an important new resource for understanding and interpreting legislative politics in Wisconsin,” says Jeff Mayers, president of “It can add transparency to the legislative process by making it easier to see how groups of legislators treat a wide variety of issues.”

WISCAPE’s particular issue of interest, for example, is how the state legislative process affects postsecondary education broadly in Wisconsin, Radomski says.

The database, along with instructions on how to use it and suggestions for the kinds of investigations it might facilitate, can be accessed via the WISCAPE website. Past and future legislative sessions will be added to the archive as they become available and can be placed in consistent formats. The database itself is housed at the UW–Madison Data and Information Services Center.

– Nik Hawkins