Question about American state governments

I have a few questions about the functioning of state governments in the US. They are motivated by the fact that the US constitution gives to the federal the responsibility to ensure that the states are governed as republics, and I’m a little curious about what it means.

It is my understanding that all states in the US are governed with a presidential system similar to the federal one, except that the state’s “president” is called a governor. But is it correct? And could a state decide to switch to a parliamentary system, where the governor is mostly a figurehead, as long as it remains a republic? And how can the governor be chosen, anyway? I believe that in most cases, if not all, he or she is elected directly by the voters, and I have found that this Wikipedia article confirms my guess. But could there be states with an electoral college of the sort that is used federally? Or, could the governor be chosen by the legislature of the state?

With 50 states, I assume that there might be a little diversity in their governments’ forms, but I wonder how much freedom the federal constitution allows them.

A state can have any form of government except a monarchy or dictatorship.

But a dictatorship can still be a “republic”, can’t it? Where do you think a court would draw the line? If a state fears imminent insurrection, we could expect the governor to take near-dictatorial powers. (Though I’m guessing the federal government would also intervene in such a situation.) Even in normal situations, the governor can be a more or less powerful player. What is the line between a democracy and a dictatorship?

A short answer is that all 50 states have their governors elected directly by the people, and always have. I can’t think offhand of any alternate method going back to the earliest days. (The southern states immediately after the Civil War but before new governments were established may be a technical exception but not a meaningful one.)

Each state has its own constitution as well. The state constitution must not contain any provisions contrary to the federal constitution, but otherwise has free rein. Conflicts between state constitutions and federal statutes are handled by the Supreme Court. AFAIK, all constitutions require that the governor be voted into office by the citizens of the state. Could a state use the legislature or an electoral college to put a governor in power? I believe so. The constitution requires that “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government,” which only eliminates kings and other such riff-raff. Would a state ever do so? Essentially impossible. Those devices were part of the one-of-a-kind compromises between the small and large states and between the upper and lower classes in writing the federal Constitution. They had no real purpose inside a state. And there was an overwhelming opinion that the closeness of a governor to his constituents required a direct vote.

Interestingly, the small counties tended to have more representation in state legislatures than big cities did per capita, a situation that was not corrected until the 1960s and the one-man, one-vote acts that required voting areas inside a state to have as mathematically close numbers as feasible in each and every district.

While a few eccentrics continually bring up the possibility of a parliament and while it appears technically feasible on the state level, I can’t believe it could ever occur. The US has a winner-take-all mindset. 500 major things in politics and culture would have to change simultaneously and that never falls into place.

All states in the US have a system that is roughly equivalent to the three-branch system of the Federal government: an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. The exact form of each may be different, but the overall architecture is the same. If you want to call this a presidential system, so be it.

It could theoretically do so, but I can’t imagine that the residents of a state would ever vote to go that way, nor can I imagine them wanting to have an electoral college.

If a state did try to switch to a parliamentary system more like Canada’s, a 2/3 he majority of people in the state would have had to modify the state’s constitution to make the initial switch. Suppose they did? Somebody in that state, or more likely the US Department of Justice, might try to bring suit against that state in the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS), arguing that the new government was not “Republican”. So, if it ever happened, SCOTUS would have to decide.

But it is as likely to happen as it is for Canada to decide it wants to be a absolute monarchy.

Why would you make that assumption? It’s easier to put together a government when everybody knows what to expect. And remember this quote from article 4.:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

In effect, this allows the Federal government to set up a provisional state government before a Territory turns into a state or states. The Federal government naturally sets up a three-branch system. The provisional (“territorial”) government then eventually turns into the state’s government. Very little chance, then, that a state will get far away from the Federal pattern.

In short, most state politicians think that the Federal architecture is pretty reasonable, despite its flaws, and works better than anything else out there.

What is interesting is that the Federa government is so substantially different from its own ancestor, the British parliamentary government. We have ample evidence to show that this comes directly from dissatisfaction with the British parliamentary practice of the time.

By the way, state government is not as uniform as you might think. Nebraska, for instance, has a one-house (unicameral) legislature which is non-partisan. The link explains this in more detail.

Every state has a governor who is directly elected, although the details of the election process may vary from state to state.

Every state (except for Nebraska) has a bicameral legislature. I don’t know the “upper” house is always called the Senate and the lower house the Legislature, but this hardly matters. They are all directly elected AFAIK.

Every state has a top-level court. Beyond that, you’ll find that there are a variety of court systems in use, though probably not 50 different ones. In the US, the judicial architecture has changed over time and continues to change, responding to changes in law and population.

As I noted in my original post, the line would be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). They’d have the fun task of deciding what “Republican Form of Government” means in Article 4 of the US Constitution.

A dictatorship can call itself a “republic”. Look at the “republics” in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics! That doesn’t mean that it is, according to the standards of the Constitution.

I am pretty sure that the SCOTUS would look at how laws are made, enacted, and enforced in the “new” state government. Some key “must haves”:
[li]Legislators elected by the entire citizenry[/li][li]Top state officials elected by the citizenry (may be part of the legislature)[/li][li]Judges appointed or elected by the entire citizenry[/li][li]Laws made by the legislature or the citizenry (and not solely by state officials even if elected) with proper veto mechanisms, judicial review, and procedures for constitutional amendment[/li][li]A written constitution[/li][/ul]

Remember, too, that a state’s government has to follow specific principles that are spelled out in more detail by other parts of the Constitution or its amendments:
[li]States can’t do anything that the original document reserves as a Federal prerogative (ie money, army)[/li][li]States can’t violate any of the amendments, including the first 10 (Bill of Rights) and nos. 13-15 defining civil rights and citizenship[/li][/ul]

The last point is particularly important. States can’t override someone’s American citizenship, and other parts of Article 4 mean that states can’t prevent people from crossing the border to another state. This means, in essence, that if a state did try to enact some unpleasant form of government, the people who objected could leave!

In short, having a “strange” state government would be more hassle than it would be worth.

Not quite. States can’t violate any of the first 10 that have been incorporated, a gradual process that began after the ratification of the 14th.

Not necessarily. The SCOTUS decided that determining what constitutes a “republican form of government” is a political question in Luther v. Borden and generally has stayed away from ruling on similar cases (Baker v. Carr excepted.)

I think that, if a state went to a parliamentary government and it spawned a court case, the SCOTUS would decline to hear it.

Why would this have to be? The president of the United States appoints his cabinet, the cabinet heads are not elected. And I believe that for the first hundred years of the United States, most top state officials were also appointed.

Not necessarily. It depends on the provisions for amending the state constitution which are contained within the state constitution itself. For example, in Wisconsin, a simple majority of the state legislature must approve the amendment in two successive sessions, then the people must approve it by a simple majority in the next general election. A number of other states have the same process, with no super-majorities required.

I’d make a small nitpick here in saying that so far as I know most (if not all) state governmental systems would not be accurately described as being “presidential” systems in a pure sense. I think of a presidential system one in which executive power is invested in only one office. The president gets to appoint executive officers (cabinet members and the like) at will and is the sole final authority on executive policy and action.

However, in most (if not all) states, the governor is not the sole, final executive authority. In Ohio, for example, besides the governor, there are several other executive officers elected directly by the people: the attorney general, the auditor, the secretary of state, and the treasurer. These constitute independent executive authorities that are not subject to the final instructions of the governor.

There has been some discussion in this thread about the legislature electing the governor. This need not be hypothetical. In South Carolina, the legislature elected the Governor until the Civil War.

Even today, Mississippi and Vermont have “legislative runoffs” in gubernatorial elections, wherein the legislature chooses the governor from among the top finishers when no candidate wins a majority of the popular vote. Both states invoked the procedure as recently as the 1990’s. Other states had the system in the past.

Regarding a gubernatorial “electoral college”, Mississippi employs a unique double-majority requirement for governor elections which actually uses the words “electoral votes” (see Section 140), although there are no electors (the votes by legislative district are automatic). Georgia had a similar “county unit system” for state primaries until the 1960’s.

I had a feeling that South Carolina in particular was different from other states. That state has had an interesting history!

Many readers will wonder about all the vagueness in American government, particularly since we have a written Constitution. In the modern world, we sometimes regret this. Why, for example, did the Framers of the Constitution (FOTC) leave the Bill of Rights out of the original version? Why didn’t they amend Article 4 to mandate that every state had to enact a Bill of Rights? We can leave aside the slavery issue; for better or worse, the FOTC realized that if they debated slavery they’d never form a government.

My educated guess is that the FOTC left things vague deliberately. They were trying to establish a very delicate balance between the efficiency and overall fairness of a central government, and the responsiveness and liberalism of decentralized government. This is not any more easy to do now that it was in the 1780s.

It has led to laws that were monstrously unfair such as slavery or election of the governor by the legislature, and periodic nonsense about personal rights including the stupidity of rejecting the Equal Rights Amendment and the current silliness over gay marriage.

Not really. One of the major arguments was that the protections were so basic that they didn’t even need to be mentioned, and that explicitly enumerating them might create problems with interpretation, as indeed it has.

Leaving aside the political comments, nothing led to laws about slavery. It was explicitly protected by the constitution itself.

Apologies for being wrong about South Carolina before.

I somewhat agree, and this is what I was thinking, although I didn’t write it.

I don’t think that they thought the protections were so basic. I have read evidence that shows that they didn’t include the Bill of Rights because they wanted parsimony in the Constitution. Madison felt a Bill of Rights was unnecessary since all 13 colonies already had them in their state constitutions. Clearly, though, he was wrong.

They wanted to have as little stated explicitly as possible, both to reduce the amount of federal government and to allow the greatest degree of interpretation.

Yeah, that was boneheaded on my part. What I should say is that the Constitution protected slavery (though it’s not mentioned by name). It also left open the question of citizenship (do you have to be a citizen of a state to be a citizen of the United States), franchise, and so forth.

Apologies for being wrong about South Carolina before.

Nope. It must be a republic. Check the Constitution for confirmation.

That automatically rules out oligarchies and a few others.

Most of the First 10 amendments known as the “Bill of Rights” has been applied to the states, THRU the 14th admendment, which says a state cannot deny a citizen “due process”

Most notibly the “Right To Bear Arms,” has never been applied to the states thru the 14th amendment

Illinois used to have an odd system for electing its lower house. It use to divide the districts and each district elected 3 memebers to the lower house. Each voter had 3 votes. He could give one to three candidates, one and one half votes to 2 candidates or all 3 votes to one candidate.

Before the Supreame Courts ruled it invalid many states simply had one senator for each county in the state. Then the Supreame Court ruled that both houses of a state must be based on population. There was a major movement to pass an amendment to allow one house in each state to be elected by means other than population

State goverments vary widely from town meetings to recall to inititive referendums. As long as the voters OK’d it and it was based on populaton I see no issue with having a proportional legislature based on party

Thanks for all the answers! Yes, I didn’t think either than any American state would want to move to a parliamentary system, or other things that are unusual for American governments, but I was still curious about whether the federal constitution would allow such things. And I see that there are still major differences between the states’ governments. Plus, I find it an interesting discussion.

There are quite a few quirks in the structures of various state governments. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, as noted above, and many states have numerous executive officers elected statewide - Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont, off the top of my head, and there are many others. I think Iowa even elects its state insurance commissioner statewide. By contrast, in New Jersey the governor is the only official elected statewide - he or she appoints all other executive officials, and is structurally one of the most powerful state governors. In Texas, on the other hand, the governor is comparitively “weak” in terms of enumerated powers.

For an early dispute over what exactly constitutes a “republican form of government,” see this little-known bit of Rhode Island history:

Not neccesarily. Both the Roman Republic and Republic of Venice were oligarchies.