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Scorecards' effect overblown, but nonetheless interesting

I don’t know what’s taking so long for some groups to put together and publicize their scorecards for the 2009 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature – the Louisiana Legislature Log’s that judges the degree of conservatism/reformism of legislators and the governor was published almost a month ago – but in most instances they are more something that political insiders concern themselves with than does the mass public.

Scorecards take a range of votes cast on bill passages or amendments and measures how a legislator performs on these matters of interest to groups. One end of the scale is perfect agreement with the group (usually made into 100 on a 100-point scale), and the other exactly the inverse. Often (commonly at the level of Congress, less so when dealing with state legislatures), groups will inform legislators prior to an important vote that the outcome will make their scorecard.

They do this, or at least generally publicize the fact some kind of scorecard on some varieties of issues will be compiled, as a subtle form of pressure. Implicitly, they argue that, for some purpose, the group will publicize the results that will make a legislator look more or less flatteringly as a result of this intervention. However, the audience almost always is a set of interests connected to the group, not voters.

Few groups in Louisiana – in fact, perhaps the only being the Louisiana Family Forum – have the ability to create mass dissemination of their scores and to activate enough interested individuals to which scores might actually mean something for an election. For this kind of group, the scorecards can be voter education tools where vote choices actually may be influenced by them in future elections. Yet for almost all other groups (and particularly those who don’t publicize theirs), they serve as instruments by which the group chooses whether to support officeholders in upcoming elections. This includes principally donation decisions or other less tangible means of electoral assistance such as endorsements. They also may be used as lobbying tools. They can identify more or less friendly legislators to the group’s agenda and allow resource allocation to be accomplished more strategically in persuasion process.

If one in hundred potential voters could name their own legislator’s score for one group on even just their own representative or senator, it would be amazing. But that’s not really the intent, measure for posterity (unlike my aforementioned Log), for almost every group doing these. Rather, they are devices before a vote before it’s even taken to persuade, with the implicit threat of bad publicity and/or lack of future support if the legislator votes the “wrong” way, and after the fact to make decisions about that future support.

Political science research on these scorecards has covered without exception the national level and generally concludes that, in terms of voting behavior, rarely does the publicity make a difference in a legislative career. For intermediary aspects such as donations and endorsements, on some occasions there may be a marginal electoral effect. In both cases, they tend to occur only for extreme cases. (In my years of doing the Log, only once has a legislator even asked about it.) Still, scorecards are an interesting tool by which to understand who is what.

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