Top Two and Polarization

One of the central claims made by proponents of the top two system of election is that by opening up the electorate–forcing candidates to compete for the full spectrum of voters rather than just those in their party–we would get more moderate legislators and less polarization in Sacramento. Here’s some of the argument from the 2010 Primary Election Voter Guide:

Our economy is in crisis. …

Our state government is broken.

But the politicians would rather stick to their rigid partisan positions and appease the special interests than work together to solve California’s problems.

In order to change government we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us.

IT’S TIME TO END THE BICKERING AND GRIDLOCK AND FIX THE SYSTEM

The politicians won’t do it, but Proposition 14 will. …

“The best part of the open primary is that it would lessen the influence of the major parties, which are now under control of the special interests.” (Fresno Bee, 2/22/09.)

PARTISANSHIP IS RUNNING OUR STATE INTO THE GROUND

Non-partisan measures like Proposition 14 will push our elected officials to begin working together for the common good. …

Vote Yes on 14—for elected representatives who are LESS PARTISAN and MORE PRACTICAL.

What’s not to like there? The promise is that we’ll get less partisan representatives who can work together for the benefit of the state as a whole rather than the parties and interests that worked to get them elected.

So how’s that working out? It’s actually pretty hard to say. Things seem to be running smoother in Sacramento, but is that because (a) we have unified Democratic control of the state government, (b) Democrats control almost 2/3 of the state legislature, (c) the economy has been improving, (d) changes made to legislative districts by the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, (e) reforms to the budgeting process enacted by Prop. 25, (f) changes to term limits made by Prop. 28, (g) something else, or (h) all of the above? Honestly, given so many moving pieces, it’s hard to say for sure what has led to the renaissance (such as it is) in California government.

But, new data is becoming available that can help us assess parts of the claims made by top two supporters. For example, has the top two system of elections led to less polarization in the legislature? Are legislators more likely to work together in a non-partisan fashion now that we have the top two system?

To help answer this question I will turn to the Shor-McCarty NPAT scores. These scores map legislators in each of the states on a common liberal-conservative spectrum. In July, Shor and McCarty released an update that includes data for 2013 so that we can see how the legislature is behaving in the year after our first top two election. The following graph plots the distance between the median Republican and the median Democrat in both chambers of the state legislature between 1993 and 2013. Higher scores mean greater distance between the two party medians and therefore more polarization.

CA_Polarization

So, um, yeah … not so much with the “less partisan” and “more practical” legislators. The trend in greater polarization that began in 1995 seems to have continued unabated in 2013. Both the California Assembly and the State Senate were more polarized in 2013 than they were at any other time given this data. A system that was supposed to break the party-dominated tone of life in Sacramento hasn’t done so. Indeed, the polarization trend has held through three different primary (closed, blanket, and semi-closed) systems in addition to the top two system.

But wait, you are saying, this is the first year we have used the top two system. Give it some time, you say. Maybe things will change in a couple years. Possibly. Possibly.

As it happens, California isn’t the first state to adopt the top two system. Immediately before we adopted it, Washington adopted the top two system. The following graph presents the same data for Washington. What has happened to polarization there? Nothing of note. Well, we can say one thing of note: Again, contrary to the promises of the pro-top two reformers, polarization didn’t go down after Washington adopted the top two system.

WA_Polarization

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