Call Your Senators
Party identification plays a significant role in determining how U.S. senators vote on legislation that impacts public health.

_Jonathan Purtle

Purtle is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy in the School of Public Health.

Even when it comes to public health, our representatives in the U.S. Senate are starkly polarized.

Democratic senators are more than four times as likely to use their vote to positively impact public health policies than their Republican colleagues, according to a study by Dornsife School of Public Health researchers.


Senators from Southern states voted in favor of APHA-endorsed legislation the least, on average. After statistically controlling for political party and other variables, Northeastern senators averaged 16.1 percentage points higher when it came to voting for APHA’s policy recommendations than their Southern colleagues; Western senators averaged 6.3 percentage points higher and Midwestern senators came in at 5.7 percentage points higher.

“The findings are concerning, but not surprising,” says Assistant Professor Jonathan Purtle. “They empirically show that the political polarization of public health policy is indeed as bad as it anecdotally seems — and has been bad for at least 15 years.”

To measure the differences in public health support, Purtle, along with Assistant Research Professor Neal Goldstein and a pair of then graduate students — Eli Edson and Annamarie Hand — examined when senators voted in line with the desires of the American Public Health Association. They used the Annual Congressional Record to identify bills introduced into Congress that could have major effects — good or bad — on public health, establish how the association would vote, then record whether each senator voted that way.

_What Is THe APHA?

The American Public Health Association is a nonpartisan, 140-year-old professional organization advocating for improved national public health.

The team did not just look at party affiliation, but also measured demographic data, including each senator’s gender, the state they represent and what region that state is in.