American Political Science Review

Research Article

No Strength in Numbers: The Failure of Big-City Bills in American State Legislatures, 1880–2000


a1 University of Rochester

a2 University of California, San Diego


Do big cities exert more power than less populous ones in American state legislatures? In many political systems, greater representation leads to more policy gains, yet for most of the nation's history, urban advocates have argued that big cities face systematic discrimination in statehouses. Drawing on a new historical dataset spanning 120 years and 13 states, we find clear evidence that there is no strength in numbers for big-city delegations in state legislatures. District bills affecting large metropolises fail at much higher rates than bills affecting small cities, counties, and villages. Big cities lose so often because size leads to damaging divisions. We demonstrate that the cities with the largest delegations—which are more likely to be internally divided—are the most frustrated in the legislative process. Demographic differences also matter, with district bills for cities that have many foreign-born residents, compared with the state as a whole, failing at especially high rates.


c1 Gerald Gamm is Associate Professor of Political Science and History, University of Rochester (

c2 Thad Kousser is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego (


  This project uses data initially collected under the supervision of Nancy Burns (University of Michigan) and Gerald Gamm (University of Rochester) and funded by the National Science Foundation, SBR-9709544. We wish to thank all of those who have helped in assembling the data we use here: Scott Allard, Jessica Blum, Kelly Bowman, Tom Carlson, Laura Evans, Sara Goico, Seth Goldstein, Chetan Gulati, Matt Jacobsmeier, Jeff Juron, Cindy Kam, Zachary Kimball, Natasha Lawrence, Mark Lawlor, Chris Lee, Corrine McConnaughy, Deborah Meizlish, Matt Murphy, Jon Onyiriuka, Brian Roraff, Adam Shapiro, Eric Snider, Matt Stack, Susanna Supalla, Sean Theriault, Tory Tilton, Dustin Tingley, and Steve Welles, as well as the librarians in the Interlibrary Loan Department of Rush Rhees Library.