wide-angle view of legislative chamber

The ‘Average’ State Legislator Is Changing, Slowly

By Amanda Zoch | Oct. 29, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

The average legislator today is a white male baby boomer with an advanced degree—just as in 2015. But that seemingly static, big-picture takeaway belies significant shifts in legislator demographics over the past five years.

Although the nation’s 7,383 lawmakers are less diverse than the country as a whole, NCSL’s 2020 legislator demographics data shows that, since 2015, more women, and more people from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, make up today’s average legislature. The extent of those shifts, however, varies by state.

To see a demographic picture of your state legislature, visit NCSL’s interactive graphic. To learn more about nation- and state-wide trends, read on.

Gender

Women currently hold 29% of legislative seats, up from 25% in 2015. In those five years, 40 of the 50 states saw an increase in the number of female legislators. In Michigan, women made the biggest strides, vaulting from 21% representation in 2015 to 36% in 2020.

Nevada is the only state where women comprise the majority of legislators. Colorado holds second place, with 47% women, and may be poised to cross the 50% threshold on Election Day. Oregon, Vermont and Washington all have between 40% and 42% female legislatures.

In most states, the house chamber is more likely to have a higher percentage of women than the senate chamber.

At the other end of the spectrum, women make up 14% of the West Virginia Legislature and comprise less than 20% of those in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming, though in all but Tennessee, female representation increased or remained the same as in 2015.

In most states, the house chamber is more likely to have a higher percentage of women than the senate chamber.

Race and Ethnicity

Legislatures remain overwhelmingly white, at 78%. Yet African American representation has increased from 9% in 2015 to 10% in 2020, as 25 states saw their percentages of Black lawmakers inch upward. Maryland has the largest African American presence, at 29%, and Black lawmakers make up at least a quarter of the legislatures in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

The percentage of Hispanic/Latino legislators has remained at 5% since 2015, though 21 states had slight upturns, according to the 2020 data. New Mexico has the most Hispanic/Latino legislators with 35%, and Arizona is the only other state with more than 25%.

Nationwide, the categories of Asian/Pacific Islander, Indian/Native American and multiracial/other remain low at 2%, 1% and 1%, respectively. In Hawaii, however, 57% of lawmakers are Asian/Pacific Islanders—it’s the only state that does not have a white majority.

Generation

Most legislators, 49%, don’t make their ages public. Consequently, NCSL’s generational data must be analyzed with that limitation in mind. Of the total number of legislators (not just those for whom we have data), baby boomers make up at least 26% and Generation X comprises 15%—though those percentages likely are higher in reality.

In the states with the most complete data on lawmakers’ ages—such as Nevada, where 2020 data collection was 92% complete—millennial representation increased from 8% to 18% while all older generations decreased. South Carolina (also 92% complete), Texas (93%) and Virginia (91%) illustrate similar trends and may offer greater insight into rising millennial representation across state legislatures.

Another new development? Generation Z lawmakers. Those in the Gen Z cohort were born after 1997 and are starting to take on the work of representative democracy. According to our research, Alaska has the highest percentage—just under 2%—and there’s little doubt we’ll see more of them in the future.

Education

Most legislators have an advanced degree of some kind. Broken down by type, 18% of legislators count a master’s degree as their highest level of education, just over 15% do the same with a law degree, and approximately 4% have doctorate degrees. Like the generational data, the educational data has limits—it’s nearly 31% incomplete.

In Idaho, where we were able to obtain complete data, a bachelor’s degree is the highest educational attainment for most legislators. At 58%, Idaho ranks highest among the states. Texas has the most lawyers, with nearly 34%, though New York is close behind with 33%. Texas also has the most lawmakers with doctorates, at 8%. Conversely, Arkansas has the largest portion of legislators for whom a high school diploma marks their highest level of education, with just under 7%.

On Average

The average legislator in Nevada is a white female Gen X-er with a master’s degree; in Hawaii, it’s a male Asian/Pacific Islander baby boomer with a bachelor’s degree. In other words, the nationwide average doesn’t tell the full story. But NCSL’s 2020 demographics data, though occasionally incomplete, helps us better know each state and better serve all state legislators.

Amanda Zoch is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and policy specialist at NCSL.

Additional Resources

Did you know that NCSL also tracks legislator compensation, length of legislative terms and more?