UW News

February 20, 2020

New, UW-developed data tool tracks state legislative process, from first draft to final law

UW News

The legislative process can be baffling to outsiders. Legislators introduce thousands of bills during each session of the Washington State Legislature. But tracking how a bill becomes a law, or what happens to the vast majority that never make it that far, isn’t easy with current technology.

A new data visualization tool aims to address this need. Legislative Explorer, or LegEx, developed by University of Washington political science professor John Wilkerson and undergraduate Rohnin Randles, in partnership with Seattle-based Schema Design, draws on bill information made available by the state to enable students, journalists and voters to visually explore the lawmaking process.

“For most Washingtonians, lawmaking is a mysterious black box. LegEx gives everyone a chance to see what’s actually going on in Olympia,” Wilkerson said. “And we think it will surprise people.”

The Legislature’s current website provides lots of information, and users can search for bill information by bill number, sponsor and title. Legislative Explorer, Wilkerson said, supplements what the state provides by allowing users to find and view much of the same information visually and dynamically.

Animation showing the status of bills during the 2017-18 legislative session.

Legislative Explorer is a data visualization tool that allows users to see various current and historic information about bills in the Washington State Legislature. It was created by John Wilkerson, University of Washington political science chair, and student Rohnin Randles.John Wilkerson/U. of Washington


Wilkerson created a similar data tool for the U.S. Congress with support from the National Science Foundation. That tool visualizes the progress of more than 250,000 congressional bills and resolutions introduced from 1973 through 2016.

Wilkerson said he’s always wanted to create a similar tool for Washington state because part-time state legislatures are so different from Congress. LegEx, kicked off in the summer of 2019 with funding from a CoMotion Amazon Catalyst grant and the Donald R. Matthews Endowment for Excellence in Political Science.

The new Legislative Explorer is similar to the original tool for Congress, but with a fresher design, more capabilities and the ability to search both the Congressional and state data from the same home page. Among its features:

  • A visual animation of lawmaking for every legislature dating back to 2001 (more than 50,000 bills and resolutions)
  • Nightly updating of bill activity for the current legislature
  • At the top of the screen lawmakers and “the people” introduce bills, which then bounce through the Legislature’s many institutions, to the governor’s desk and then into law at the bottom of the screen. Of course, the vast majority of bills get “stuck” at some point in this process, never making it into law
  • Color-coding differentiates the parties of lawmakers and their bills: red particles indicate bills sponsored by Republicans, blue particles are bills sponsored by Democrats
  • Tracers highlight the complete path of each bill
  • Numerous filters (sponsor, party, majority versus minority, legislative district, policy topic, Eastern versus Western Washington) and title keyword search capabilities
  • Easy access to additional information about every bill and resolution

To see how Legislative Explorer works, take a bill from the 2019 session, House Bill 1532, which proposed establishing resources to help people deal with brain injuries resulting from domestic abuse. By typing the bill number — or even the word “brain” in the search window — a user can watch the chronology of the bill unfold on the time lapse. The bill starts in the Public Safety Committee and works its way through two more committees before passing the House in March. It then gets sent to the Senate’s Law & Justice Committee, where it spends another month before landing on the Senate floor. It passes and is sent to the governor for signing.

Legislative Explorer can help constituents get a direct look at what their representatives are doing in Olympia, student collaborator Randles said.

“People have so many questions about our government, but it’s often hard to get the right answers. I think what we’ve done with this project is bridge that gap by creating a resource that allows anyone to ask questions and get answers about what is really going on in their government,” said Randles, a UW senior and political science major. “You might say, ‘I voted for this person because I thought they were going to address topic X, but in the last two years, did they do anything?’ Maybe they did nothing — maybe they introduced 10 bills and all of them died, but at least they tried.”

Randles said the visualization is especially effective at illustrating the difficulty of lawmaking. In any given term, only about 12% of the approximately 5,000 bills introduced will be signed by the governor and become law.

The site taps into data from LEG-TECH, the Washington State Legislature’s Legislative Service Center. Each night, a new batch of data is pulled and used to update the database running the visualization, to keep the site as current as possible.

“LegEx doesn’t capture everything the Legislature does, such as meeting with constituents, amending bills in committee, or voting on the floor,” said Wilkerson. “But we do hope that Washingtonians of all ages find Legislative Explorer to be an engaging and informative — even fun — way to explore the activities of their legislature.”


For more information, contact Wilkerson at jwilker@uw.edu.