During 2021, Democratic members of the Texas state Senate, who were in the Minority, were able to shut down their legislative process by denying quorum to the Majority, which was held by Republicans. That tactic was also used by Republican members of the Oregon state Senate in 2019, Democratic members of the Wisconsin state Senate in 2011, and by Democratic members of the Texas state House and Senate in 2003.
The term “quorum” refers to the minimum number of members of a legislative chamber who must be present to conduct business in that chamber. If there aren’t enough members present to satisfy the quorum requirement, then business cannot be conducted in that chamber.
States are different based primarily on the unique state constitution of each state. State statutes (laws) also differ from one state to the next. Finally, the elected members of a legislative chamber are generally allowed by constitution or statute to establish rules for that chamber, which can differ between two chambers in the same state.
There are 99 state legislative chambers among the fifty United States, two in each state except for Nebraska, which has a unicameral, one-chamber, state legislature. The quorum requirement for each of those 99 state legislative chambers might be found in the state constitution, state statute, or the legislative rules of that chamber.
Texas, Wisconsin, and Oregon are examples of the very few states in which the quorum requirements for one or both legislative chambers are based on a relatively high number or percentage of members elected to a given chamber. During the instances previously noted, the quorum requirement for a given chamber in those states might have been as high as 2/3 of members elected to that chamber.
Such a high number or percentage required for a quorum is very rare among the 99 state legislative chambers. In most state legislative chambers, Colorado included, the quorum requirement is based on a simple majority of members elected to a chamber. That would refer to the next whole number greater than half of those members elected.
Here in Colorado, the quorum requirement for our state House and Senate can be found in Article V, Section 1 of the Colorado Constitution, which states, “A majority of each house shall constitute a quorum. The words “A majority of each house” means a simple majority, the next whole number greater than half, of members elected to a given chamber.
There are 65 members elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. Dividing that number in half, 50%, results in 32.5 members. The next whole number greater than 32.5 is 33, which is the quorum requirement for the Colorado House of Representatives when all 65 seats are filled.
There are 35 members elected to the Colorado Senate. Dividing that number in half, 50%, results in 17.5 members. The next whole number greater than 17.5 is 18, which is the quorum requirement for the Colorado Senate when all 35 seats are filled.
Divisive policy matters in Texas, Wisconsin, and Oregon led to the very few examples available of a Minority legislative shutting down the process by denying quorum to the Majority. To some degree, in each of the examples previously noted, that tactic was implemented to stall or prevent such policies from proceeding through the legislative process.
The reason why that tactic is not used more often is that the math doesn’t work in almost all other state legislative chambers. In most state legislative chambers, the Colorado House and Senate included, it is mathematically impossible for the Minority to shut down the process by denying quorum to the Majority.
Thus, here in Colorado, members of a Minority caucus are more likely to be present in the chamber for such divisive policy debates and voting. That way, they can be on record as being opposed to a given policy and have their votes counted. Otherwise, the process would continue without them, and each would be marked “Absent” or “Excused”.