Black And White, Or Shades Of Gray — Do Legislative Debates Change Lawmakers' Minds?

Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2020 - 2:15pm
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We are now solidly in the midst of the legislative session, when residents show up at committee hearings to testify in favor or against certain bills and lawmakers themselves try to convince their colleagues of their point of view through debate on the House or Senate floor. But how much convincing and mind-changing actually happens?

John Harlow with the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston believes at the state, and for that matter, the federal levels, probably not that much.

Harlow says that means it’s probably easier to predict where state or federal lawmakers will land — and vote — on most issues. Harlow’s work mainly focuses on smart cities and engaging the public around tech in urban areas. And, he says, if residents really want to influence how policy-makers think and vote, city council meetings are a better bet.

But residents still show up to talk to or email their state lawmakers. And many of those lawmakers still take to the floor to debate issues — even though they may already know the outcome of a particular vote.

Harlow says that’s partly because that’s how the system works. But, he says, there’s another, more practical reason legislators may try changing unchangeable minds.

Harlow says these kinds of speeches are often strategic and can serve as a signal — either to that lawmaker’s side that they agree on a particular issue, or to those on the other side about the potential for finding common ground. But do they work?

To find out, I sat down with two Republican former state lawmakers: Rich Crandall of Mesa and John McComish of Phoenix. Both served in each the House and Senate. And The Show started our conversation by asking Crandall what the role is of debate in a state Legislature, be it from people coming to a committee to testify, or from colleagues on the floor of the House or Senate.

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