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Don’t Blame Prop. 14 for Low Turnout


Admittedly I am picking a fight without reading the whole article (because it is behind a pay wall), but in today’s Ventura Star Timm Herdt lays out an argument that Prop. 14’s top-two system of elections is partly to blame for the incredibly low turnout (gated) that we saw in California on Tuesday. He calls the system a failure. While I am not a big fan of the top-two system as it has been implemented in California, I don’t think that you can blame it for just 18% of California’s registrants showing up to vote (or, again, more likely mailing their ballots in).

We are not the only state that uses the top-two system. Washington does as well. In fact, our system is explicitly modeled on Washington’s system. The following graph shows the percent of registrants voting in Washington’s elections from 1952 to 2012 (their first 2014 election will be in August). During the period up to 2002 (the first vertical line), Washington used the blanket primary. After the Supreme Court held the blanket primary unconstitutional, it switched to an open primary system (what they called “pick a primary”) for the 2004 and 2006 elections. In 2008 (the second vertical line), Washington adopted the top-two system, which it has used ever since.

Washington State Turnout

Note that turnout hasn’t cratered in Washington as it has in California. Indeed, turnout in the last three elections looks an awful lot like turnout in the prior elections. Admittedly, these numbers are for the November elections. If we look at the last five primaries (2004-2012), though, we see the same pattern. The turnout numbers are 45.1% (2004), 38.8% (2006), 42.6% (2008), 41.0% (2010), and 38.5% (2012). Again, there is no major drop-off in voter turnout once the top-two system was adopted in Washington.

So why the low turnout if it’s not the top-two system? There are lots of possibilities. Off the top of my head I would offer: The marginalization of the Republican Party in California politics, the fact that we have a popular governor running for re-election, the fact that there were no interesting ballot initiatives to vote on, the fact that there are no major controversies animating California politics right now, and the fact that more people think the state is headed in the right direction. As I said before, it was a boring, low-salience election. There was very little to get people excited about voting. Those are the places where I would look to explain low turnout, not the top-two system.


Thoughts on the June 3 Election

Californians (at least a very small number of us) went to the polls yesterday (well, most of us mailed back our ballots and didn’t actually go to the polls). Here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • Turnout was really, really, really low–even for a boring election like this one. Right now it looks like turnout among registered voters (who we think are likely to vote because they bothered to register) will be a mere 18.5%. In 2010 and 2006, registered turnout was 33%. This is voter participation looks like in an election where the most compelling statewide race is the Secretary of State contest and there are no big, sexy ballot initiatives to draw people’s attention.
  • At least locally, this election looks to be as close to an all-mail election as we’ve seen in a long time. Last week, over 42,000 mail ballots had been returned to the Registrar’s office. As of this morning, the Registrar reports that just over 50,000 people voted in San Joaquin County. Even assuming that no more mail ballots were submitted (problematic), that means that about 85% of the ballots cast were cast through the mail.
  • Unless I have missed something, there will be no minor party candidates on this fall’s ballot. There will be a handful of No Party Preference candidates, but no minor party candidates were among the top two vote getters in any partisan contest.
  • In 2012, the Democrats blew a great opportunity to pick up the 31st congressional district. The district tilts slightly Democratic in its presidential/gubernatorial voting and in its voter registration, but no Democrat appeared on the November ballot in 2012 because the Democrats could not coordinate and settle on a single candidate. They almost did it again this year. Pete Aguilar, the top vote getter among the four (!) Democrats in the district, received just 390 more votes than the second-place Republican, Lesli Gooch. Aguilar should win against Paul Chabot in November, though.
  • Locally, the state and national contests were largely cake-walks for the incumbents. Jerry McNerney (D, CA-9) received more than 50% of the vote. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) got more than 57% of the vote. The Assembly and State Senate members all coasted as well (though not all with as large a vote margin).
  • Also, remember, no matter what they say in the media, yesterday’s election was not a primary.

Prop. 14’s Electoral System

A quick reminder: Despite what you hear in the media and despite what it says on your ballot, the California June election is not a primary election.

What is a primary election? I usually discourage students from using dictionary definitions in their papers, but the exercise is useful here. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines a primary election as an “intra‐party election enabling voters to participate in the selection of candidates.” Indeed, as Alan Ware documents in his book, The American Direct Primary, primary elections were adopted in the United States precisely so that political parties could regain control over their nominees. The defining feature of a primary election is that rank-and-file party members get to participate in the selection of their party’s nominees for office.

Did you catch that? In a primary election, party members select party nominees for office. Because of Prop. 14, that’s not what will happen in the June election.

In the June election, voters from every political party will go the polls (or, more likely, fill out their ballots at home and then mail them back) and cast their vote for their preferred candidate. While the vast majority of people will cast a ballot for someone from their own political party, there is no requirement to do so. If you are a Republican and you want to vote for a Democrat, you get to do so. If you are a Democrat and you want to vote for a Republican, you can. (I’d say something about voting for a minor party candidate, but there are so few of them that most of us won’t get that option.) The two candidates who receive the most votes will then face each other in the November election. There is no requirement that the candidates be from different parties. If two Republicans receive more votes than the top Democrat, then the two candidates on the November ballot will both be Republicans. If two Democrats receive the most votes, then there will be no Republicans on the November ballot.

So if it’s not a primary election (despite almost everyone claiming that it is), what is the June election? It’s the first stage of a majority-runoff system of elections. As I wrote in my article:

Although there is some debate about the exact classification of California’s new electoral system, most scholars would identify the Proposition 14 system as a variant of majoritarian runoff elections. Riker (1983, 754), for example, defines such a system as one with “three or more candidates with two ballots, in which at the first ballot the winners are the two candidates with the largest and second largest number of votes, and, at the second ballot between exactly these two, the winner is the candidate with a simple majority.” Lijphart (1995, 18) refers to both the Louisiana and Georgia systems [which share characteristics with California's system] as majority runoff systems (see also Norris 1997; Engstrom and Engstrom 2008). Cox (1997) labels these electoral systems “single-member dual-ballot” systems.

So if you are from California, as you sit around and discuss who you will vote for in June don’t use the word “primary.” It doesn’t apply to the election you will be voting in.

Updating Prop. 14 and the Death of Minor Parties

Last year I wrote a number of posts about the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. These musings ultimately led to an article, which was published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy, about the minor parties’ experience post-Prop. 14  (gated versionrevised, ungated version). Since the June election is now just weeks away, I thought I would update some of the tables and figures with data from this election cycle.

Overall, 2014 is a continuation of the pattern observed in 2012–there are fewer minor party candidates contesting fewer districts this election cycle compared to prior cycles. The 2012 cycle saw a historically low number of minor party candidates–just 17 (compared with 77 in 2010). In 2014, there are only 14 minor party candidates contesting 12 districts. Table 1 shows the number of minor party candidates and the number of districts contested for each of the three types of legislative districts in California. In general, 2014 looks an awful lot like 2012.

2014 Update Table

In my article, I argue that the decline in minor party candidates principally comes from three factors (in order of increasing importance):

  1. Candidates, knowing they were likely not be one of the top two vote getters and therefore would not make the November election, chose not to run.
  2. The Legislature significantly increased the costs of filing for office for minor party candidates after Prop. 14, changing what had been an essentially costless act into a very costly one. As a result, fewer minor party candidates chose to file for office.
  3. Most importantly, party leaders–especially in the Libertarian Party–no longer recruited candidates as they once did in the face of (1) and (2).

I really want to emphasize the importance of #3 in understanding the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. Most of the decline between 2010 and 2012, as shown below, was located in the Libertarian Party. (There was a little controversy over the following chart. See here then here.)

2014 UpdateUnlike the other minor parties (with the exception of the Natural Law Party when it existed) the Libertarian Party has historically relied on a centralized candidate recruitment effort. Moreover, as shown below, until the last two election cycles its number of candidates has largely tracked its statewide party registration numbers. In 2012, though, the person responsible for recruiting Libertarian candidates chose not to repeat the effort. In an email exchange with me, the person specifically identified #1 and #2 as reasons for no longer recruiting candidates. (While I haven’t talked with the person this year, I would be very surprised if there was a recruitment effort in 2014.) As a consequence, while the Libertarian Party’s registration numbers have been ticking upward in the state–reaching a modern high in 2014–the number of Libertarian candidates filing for office has collapsed. Only five candidates filed for office this year. The Libertarian Party now looks like the other minor parties in California.


It wouldn’t be a post about Prop. 14 and minor parties if I didn’t speculate about what these numbers mean for California’s minor parties, so here goes:

There are two primary ways in which California’s minor parties maintain the ballot qualification status. First, one of their candidates receives at least 2 percent of the November vote for a statewide office (e.g., Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and Attorney General). Historically, this has been the principal way in which parties have maintained access to the ballot. Given that none of the parties’ candidates will make it to the November election for these offices, none of the parties will maintain their ballot status this way this cycle.

The second way to maintain ballot status is by having 1 percent of the total gubernatorial vote registered as party members. The minor parties are really lucky that the governor’s race is so very boring this year. Turnout is likely to be low, which will make it easier for the parties to stay on the ballot. The magic number after the 2010 contest (which had relatively high turnout–44%!–because of the Brown-Whitman contest) was 103,004 registrants. Given current registration numbers and an assumed turnout rate closer to 2006, the American Independent, Green, and Libertarian parties should be able to maintain their ballot status. The Americans Elect (a failed “third way” party organized for the 2012 presidential election) and the Peace & Freedom parties, however, will likely lose their ballot status.

(The parties can also gather petition signatures equal to 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in order to stay on the ballot. Given the expense of doing so, though, I don’t see either party trying this route.)

Another Cut at Two Presidencies

My colleague, Prof. Klunk, wrote what has become one of the more popular posts on this site–an investigation of whether or not there are two presidencies. His post is about Aaron Wildavsky’s version of the two presidencies theory, the idea that there is a “foreign policy” presidency and a “domestic policy” presidency.

In this post, I want to explore a different two presidencies theory–advanced by Jeffrey Tulis–and use it as an excuse to pontificate about last night’s State of the Union Address. (I apologize in advance to Tulis. I probably will do his argument some disservice here.)

In the Rhetorical Presidency, Tulis argues that there are two constitutional presidencies–an uppercase “Constitutional” presidency and a lowercase “constitutional” presidency. (An abbreviated version of the argument can be found in Michael Nelson’s The Presidency and the Political System.) The “Constitutional” presidency refers to the presidency as it was conceived by the men who wrote the Constitution. This presidency is a limited presidency in which the president draws his authority from the Constitution and does not lead public opinion. Indeed, the Founders designed the presidency in order to limit the potential influence of a given president on the political system. The office exists within a separation of powers system, with the the three branches pursuing different objectives and performing different functions. The president’s function is to administer the laws that Congress passes. This presidency is a very limited presidency from a contemporary perspective. In the Richard Neustadt’s phrasing, the president is “an invaluable clerk,” someone whose actions are needed for the federal government to run effectively but who–by virtue of the constitutional limitations on his power–yields little independent influence over its direction.

The “constitutional” presidency, in contrast, is one in which the president draws his authority from his ability to lead public opinion in addition to the authority granted to the president by the Constitution. This vision of presidency demands that the president take an active role in determining the government’s direction. It is a rhetorical presidency–one in which the president must take the pulse of public opinion, turn that vague opinion into concrete policy proposals, and then actively work to convince the public (and thereby Congress) to support it. The lowercase “constitutional” presidency requires the president to be more than a clerk; it requires the president to be a leader.

Tulis argues that the two constitutional presidencies ultimately conflict with each other. The “constitutional” presidency demands an activist president that seeks to lead the public–and thereby the government–with bold policy proposals. The “Constitutional” emphasizes the institutional limits on the president’s ability to do so.

So what does this have to do with the last night’s State of the Union? I think President Obama’s speech last night was a perfect example of the tension that Tulis talks about.

On the one hand, there are a lot of things that President Obama would like to do. Using the example that a lot of people are talking about today, President Obama would like to raise the minimum wage. There’s actually a fair amount of public support for doing so. According to a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents said they would support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour (the proposal from last year’s State of the Union). People are also still worried about their financial situation and the direction the economy is going. So here’s a case where President Obama can potentially be a leader by taking a proposal that has popular support, turning it into a concrete policy proposal, and then advocating for its passage.

But given current levels of partisan disagreement in Congress there’s no chance that Congress will actually raise the minimum wage. The House Republicans, for strategical political reasons and because of sincere policy beliefs, are not at all interested in raising the minimum wage. President Obama knows that. Everyone in Congress knows that. The talking heads on cable news know that (if they are being honest). Really, any reasonable political observer knows that the president’s proposal is basically dead in the water.

The end result is that because we (the public) expect the president to be a leader, President Obama has to get up in front of the nation and give a speech full of bold policy proposals that cannot be enacted because the Republicans control the House and they are not interested in passing his proposals. He has to create the appearance of being influential in a system where he actually has only a limited amount of influence.

Are the New Republican Primary Rules a Problem for California in 2016?

The Republican National Committee recently enacted a number of changes to the rules governing its primary process. (Rules changes are a frequent occurrence, and the specific changes are generally a response to the received wisdom about what went wrong last time.) Frontloading HQ has a good round up of the changes.

The general thrust of the rule changes is to compress the primary calendar for the Republican Party. Instead of a process that lasts from January to July, as happened in 2012, the party is trying to get everyone to hold their nominating events between February and May. Here are the big changes in the rules:

  1. The RNC increased the penalties for states that schedule their nominating events before the primary window opens on March 1. (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina will all still be allowed to have earlier events.) Last cycle, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona (among others) all scheduled their events in violation of party rules. This cycle, the penalties for doing so will be greater.
  2. States that hold their primaries in the first part of March will have to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis. (Although, that’s not too hard to do and it doesn’t change the results that much. Again, see Frontloading HQ.)
  3. The RNC plans to schedule its nominating convention in July rather than August. (The belief is that Romney was hurt in 2012 because he couldn’t spend general election money until after he was formally nominated.)
  4. The RNC now requires that states pick their delegates to the nominating convention at least 45 days before the convention begins.

It’s really these last two changes that matter for California. In 2012, our presidential primary took place on June 5. Although we like to pretend that we know the results the day after an election, the results for this election were not certified by the Secretary of State until July 13–38 days after the election. If the same 45-day rule had applied, the earliest the RNC convention could have been held and for California to be compliant would have been the end of August.

Assuming the same patterns and no changes in the date of California’s 2016 primary, California would be in compliance only if the convention were held in the middle of September. But the RNC wants to hold the convention in July. So something is going to have to give. Either California will have to move its presidential primary date earlier, or the RNC is going to have to let California designate its delegates late.

My guess? We move our primary forward. The last time neither party had an incumbent presidential nominee, 2000, California moved its primary forward to March 7. In 2004 and 2008, when the Democratic Party did not have an incumbent candidate, the primaries were respectively held on March 2 and February 5. Only in 2012, when Barack Obama was running for re-election did the state keep its presidential primary at the June date.

That said, we allocate our delegates on a winner-take-all basis. If you get more votes that the next person, you get all of the delegates. Assuming we move the primary to the first part of March as we have in the past, then the California Republican Party will have to change how it allocates delegates to the different candidates.

Update: Frontloading HQ indicates that there is an exception to the 45 certification requirement for states that are controlled by Democrats and therefore may not be inclined to move the primary just to abide by RNC rules (e.g., California). That said, I still expect California to move its primary to March in order to be influential in the Democratic primary process.

The Voting Wars Come to California

Rick Hasen calls this kind of thing voting wars, the extension of partisan conflict into the voting process. Last week, the California Secretary of State certified a ballot initiative for circulation (meaning its sponsors can begin to collect signatures) that would require every California polling-place voter to present a government-issued photo identification and every postal/absentee voter to include information from a government-issued identification (e.g., the last four digits of a Social Security number) in order for their vote to be counted. Never mind that the evidence for the kind voter fraud this requirement addresses is basically non-existent and that these kinds of requirements tend to discourage minorities, poor people, and the elderly from voting. Interestingly, this petition comes shortly after California enacted a new law (SB 360) that allows the state to experiment with new voting technologies (hello, internet voting!) in an effort to help more people to vote.

Here’s the official synopsis:

ELECTIONS. VOTER IDENTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Prohibits citizen’s vote at the polls from being counted unless he or she presents government-issued photo-identification. Establishes provisional voting for citizens at the polls who fail to present government-issued photo-identification. Requires that provisional ballots and mail-in ballots be deemed invalid unless the accompanying envelope contains the citizen’s birthdate, and citizen’s identification number or last four digits of driver’s license, state identification card, or social security number. Requires that election officials verify this information prior to opening or counting ballot. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Increased local government elections costs and decreased state fee revenues, potentially in the range of tens of millions of dollars per year. Potentially increased state funding (about $100 million) to local governments, offset by an equal amount of decreased state funding to local governments in future years. (13-0039.)

Be sure to look for it at a supermarket or mall near you. Then, walk away without signing the petition.

More Adventures in Bad Chart Making

December 2, 2013 2 comments

I still think Andrew Gelman does this kind of thing better, but it’s hard not to comment on the following chart from the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan:

oimgThe larger point that Sean is trying to make is important: There has been a significant decline in the production of federal legislation. That said, this chart is horrible. Among the many problems:

  1. It is incredibly problematic to include the current Congress (113th) in the chart. Doing so exaggerates the trend in an unfair way. Every other Congress has been completed. We haven’t even made it to the end of the first session of the 113th Congress.
  2. The chronology is reversed. Reading left to right, we travel backward in time from the current Congress to the 105th Congress (1997-98). Time series should go forward.
  3. Only Congress nerds (and I am happy to be one) know the dates for each Congress. Everyone else has to rely on tables like this one. If you are going to make a time series, use commonly known labels for the time periods.
  4. Why separate the two sessions of each Congress instead of stacking them? The overall trend would still be there (if anything it would appear stronger), and people would still be able to see that most of the action has come in the second session of each Congress.
  5. Don’t stagger the axis tick labels. If the labels won’t fit horizontally, rotate them.
  6. Why start the y-axis at 20 instead of zero? Is the difference that large? Starting the axis at 20 because that’s what Excel defaulted to is just lazy.
  7. Label your axes in ways that people will understand. What does “Public laws enacted” mean? Why not just say “number of laws?”

Here’s another stab at the chart using the same data:


A Reduced Filibuster

The Senate Democrats did it. Presidential nominations for executive appointments and lower court seats can no longer be filibustered. Instead, these nominations will be subject to a simple majority vote. I agree with Ezra Klein–today’s vote effectively ends the filibuster as an institution in American politics. The Senate, from this point forward, will be more like the House. I don’t know if means the ability to move the previous question will be reintroduced in the Senate, though.

Here’s some of Sarah Binder’s take:

1.  Is today’s change as landmark as reporters say?  Yes, this is big.  Jeremy Peters in the New York Timesargues that “The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.”  Peters is probably correct.  To be sure, Senate majorities have nibbled away at parts of the Senate’s Rule 22 (the cloture rule) since the threshold was last changed in 1975.  Some of those changes (such as imposing and then reducing a post-cloture debate cap) were achieved by following the formal rules of the Senate.  Others (such as banning filibusters of motions to proceed to particular nominations) were changed by mini-nuclear options, if you will.  In contrast, this is the first reform of Senate rules that changes the number of votes required to invoke cloture.  And the Democrats did it in an institutionally-gutsy way.  Senate majorities will still have to go through the steps of filing for cloture (I think!), but now a simple majority suffices to end debate to bring the Senate to an up-or-down vote on nominees.  This is what Senate Republicans called for 2005; Harry Reid has delivered it.  (Careful what you wish for.)

4. Will GOP senators retaliate by blowing up every remaining bridge in sight? This has historically been a viable threat that has undermined majorities’ efforts to go nuclear.  But such retaliation clearly did not dissuade Reid and his colleagues from going forward.  As he said on more than one occasion, how much worse can the Senate get?  Or as Greg Koger has suggested, senators are already exploiting the least costly avenues of obstruction.  To be more obstructive would likely begin to impose more costs on the minority that they might not want to absorb. Hanging around the chamber to cast votes just to slow down the majority might not be worth it for the minority.  And at some point, the risk of being tagged as obstructionist could hurt GOP senators in 2014 (though this remains to be seen of course).

This really is big. It’s difficult to understate how significant this change is and will be.

The Beginning of the End of the Filibuster?

The Senate is currently debating whether to impose the “nuclear option” on presidential nominees for executive branch offices and for  nominees to the district and appellate courts. Nominees to the Supreme Court would, for now, still be subject to the filibuster. Senate Democrats threatened to make similar changes at the start of the current Congress and again over the past summer. (See here for a quick summary of the timeline.) Each time, however, they were able to reach a deal with the Republicans to allow some nominations to proceed without changing the rules.

While there will be protests that Senate Democrats have broken the rules if they do restrict the use of the filibuster (this is currently Mitch McConnell’s favorite talking point), most observers agree that it can be done. Gregory Koger, for example, writes:

Bottom line: a simple majority has—and has always had—the power to restrict filibustering if senators are willing to take extreme measures to achieve their goals. Although parliamentary rules are discussed as if they are LAWS (with “rules” and “precedents” and “rulings from the chair”) in the final analysis the rules can be interpreted however a majority of the legislature prefer.

The basic logic of filibuster reform is this: Is it worth enough for me today, as I sit in the majority, to lose the filibuster in the future should my party become the minority? Am I willing to give up the potential to obstruct in the future so that I can get my way today? (Yes, there are reputation and potential electoral costs that I will incur if I change the rules, but these are relatively minor. PR wars happen all the time over bigger issues that have little to no effect on elections.)

It’s unclear what the outcome of this change would be. Would Senate Republicans follow through on the MAD (mutually assured destruction) aspect of the nuclear option and grind the Senate to a complete halt by obstructing everything else? Honestly, the reason the Senate Democrats are willing to even discuss the nuclear option is that over the last five years the Republicans have already largely adopted this policy. Yes, there is more that could happen in the way of obstruction, but the level of Republican obstruction has become so great that Democrats feel it is now worth paying the price.

I do think, however, that any change in the filibuster today would signal the beginning of the end of the filibuster has we have known and loved it. If it is okay to change the filibuster today because of minority party obstruction of nominees, it becomes easier to change the filibuster tomorrow because of minority party obstruction of a bill.

BTW, my go to sources for analysis of any such proposal are Sarah Binder and Gregory Koger, both of whom have written extensively on the filibuster (see here, here, and here for examples of Binder’s work and here, here, and here for examples of Koger’s work). They don’t always agree on their analysis.


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