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Responding to Skelton Again

George Skelton writes:

California Legislature is looking more moderate due to voting reforms

… [V]oters adopted the “top two” open primary. Starting in 2012, candidates didn’t seek party nominations. They sought to finish in the top two, regardless of party, and qualify for the November election. That meant they needed to attract voters outside their own party bases.

In theory, this would result in the election of more moderates and fewer party extremists. That also is happening.

My response:

CA_Polarization

Yeah, no. Sorry, George, wrong again. California has been and continues to be one of the most polarized legislatures in the country. If anything, despite the claims to the contrary, we have become even more polarized since the adoption of the top two system (which, by the way, is not a primary).

[h/t Rick Hasen]

 

Spot the Missing Voters

Although some of the (provisional) ballots are still being counted, it appears that incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney has coasted to reelection this year against his Republican challenger Tony Amador in our local congressional district. Without even debating Amador (there’s some question about why that happened) and essentially running as low key a campaign as possible (though not nearly as low key as Gov. Brown’s), McNerney will be going back to Washington, DC, in 2015 for at least another two years.

If all you look at is the top line number, though, this year’s election seems a lot closer than 2012’s. This year, McNerney won with 51.5% of the vote. In 2012, against Ricky Gill, McNerney won with 55.6% of the vote.

Does this mean that Amador, despite raising just $62,000 compared to Gill’s $3,000,000, was a better candidate than Gill? I don’t think that’s the conclusion to be drawn here. Instead, I think the larger story is the disappearance of a large number of (Democratic) voters, especially in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

The following graph shows the number of votes received by each candidate by county. (The numbers will go up ever so slightly for both Amador and McNerney this cycle as the provisional and late arriving mail ballots are processed, but the overall differences won’t change significantly.)

CD9Votes

In every county, Gill out-polled Amador. In every county, McNerney’s 2012 campaign out-polled his 2014 campaign. McNerney’s losses in 2014, however, were ever so larger than Amador’s, thus the closer contest. Overall, McNerney’s vote total fell by 66% in 2014 compared to 2012. Amador’s vote total in 2014 was 60% lower than Gill’s was in 2012.

Does this mean that a better candidate could have defeated McNerney this cycle? Given the strong showing of Republicans nationally I’ll admit that it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it would have been very likely. I think the 2012 results still show how hard it will be for a Republican to win in this district. Gill had the disadvantage of running as someone who had never held elected office (just like Amador) and in a presidential election year when the Democrats did well. (Amador, having run for office several times, was perhaps more familiar to Republican voters.) Gill, however, was able to raise and spend $3 million, with outside groups kicking in another $3 million on his behalf. And he still lost by over 11 points.

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

Good News for California’s Minor Parties

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2351, which breathes new life into California’s collection of minor parties. To understand how it does so, we need to go back to one of my favorite topics: Proposition 14.

Under Prop. 14, only the top-two vote getters in a contest make it to the November election. In statewide contests like Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and so forth, this effectively means that the contest will be between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Indeed, this year no third party candidates made it to the November ballot. In the last decade plus of California elections, the highest total any third party candidate received was about 6.5 percent of the vote. The Republican and Democratic candidates by themselves averaged about 90 percent of the total vote.

Why is this important? Because under California’s old law, the easiest way political parties maintained their ballot qualification status by receiving two percent of the vote for a statewide office in the November election. The following table shows all the minor party candidates that achieved this level of support in the 2010 elections. If no third party candidates appear on the November ballot, then parties could not maintain their status this way.

partyqual

If parties do not receive two percent of the vote, they can maintain their ballot status by registering voters equal to one percent of the total gubernatorial vote; that is, they have to get enough people to register with their party when the individuals register to vote. As the above table shows, most of the minor parties in California could maintain their ballot status this way. One in particular–the Peace and Freedom Party, which has a long and rich tradition in California politics–does not have enough registrants to maintain its ballot status. (We won’t really talk about the Americans Elect Party because it is a failed third-way experiment from the 2012 election.) In a high turnout gubernatorial election (not this year but maybe in 2018), the Green and Libertarian parties would be challenged to maintain their status.

So why is AB 2351 such good news? It changes the standards for the parties to maintain their status in two important ways. First, it moves the two percent requirement from the November election to the June election. The Green Party had three candidates cross this threshold this year (Jena Goodman for Lt. Governor, David Curtis for Secretary of State, Laura Wells for Controller, and Ellen Brown for Treasurer). The Libertarian Party had one candidate (Jonathan Jaech for Attorney General). The Peace and Freedom Party had also had one candidate (Nathalie Hrizi for Insurance Commissioner).  Only the American Independent Party failed to cross the two percent threshold. Second, it reduces the number of registrants required to maintain ballot status from one percent of the November gubernatorial vote to just 0.33 percent of the total statewide registration. All of the parties (save Americans Elect) meet this requirement.

What we have here is a nice bit of reform. The old rules made it almost impossible for the California’s minor parties to continue and contest elections. Recognizing this, the legislature changed the rules so that the minor parties won’t be forced from the ballot.

Well, they won’t be forced from the June ballot at least. We still won’t seem them in November.

Six California’s No More

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Well, darn. The plan to split California into six separate states died before it even hit the ballot. Not that there was ever any chance of this proposal ever becoming a reality, but we don’t even get to debate its merits (or lack thereof) for the next two years.

The proposed six states.

A note to all you would be initiative sponsors out there: Yes, people will sign a lot of what you shove in their faces outside the grocery store or the mall. They won’t put much thought into whether they are signing the right form, whether they can legally sign it, or whether they are signing their own name or someone else’s name, though. Draper’s organization submitted 1,150,000 signatures hoping to get at least the needed 807,615 valid signatures. They weren’t able to get there, falling about 50,000 short.

Count me as disappointed.

California’s Gubernatorial Debate

September 5, 2014 1 comment

If a debate happens and nobody pays any attention, does it really happen?

A full two months before the November election, California’s incumbent governor, Jerry Brown, and his challenger, Neel Kashkari, squared off for their one and only debate. It was a testy affair, and Kashkari desperately tried to create some heat for his campaign.

Yeah. About that.

Here are some screen grabs from some of California’s major newspapers. See if you can spot the theme:

Let’s start with the best home-page coverage, the San Jose Mercury News:

MercuryNews

So far, so good. Now something a little less prominent but still heavily featured, the Sacramento Bee:

Bee

Okay. Still pretty good. There’s a picture there, and it seems to be the main article. Now, SFGate (the free version of the San Francisco Chronicle):

Chronicle

Uh, oh. According the Chronicle editors, you the reader are likely to care more about the price of a 49ers game, real estate in Berkeley, or how to successfully quit your job than you are the debate. Well, San Francisco is a hot bed of liberalism. Maybe it’s an aberration.

Here’s two conservative papers, though, the Orange County Register and the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Register

There’s no mention of the debate at all here. None at all.

PressEnterprise

A monster-sized boulder is apparently more important than the gubernatorial debate to the readers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Finally, from the Los Angeles Times:

LATimes

Yeah. No debate here either. (Although maybe the story about the grocery bags is a stealth attempt to get people to read about the debate. Brown did say during the debate that he would probably sign the bill banning plastic grocery bags in California.)

So, summing up. There was a debate last night between the two people running for governor in California. It’s the only debate that will happen between these two people. Only half of the state’s major newspapers think it was worth your attention. (Or, more accurately, think you care enough about it to feature it on their home-page.)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the print editions of these newspapers. Maybe the debate is above the fold there. Most people don’t get their news from print editions any more, though.

———-

P.S. If you are wondering where all the adds are (the LA Times site has a lot of white space, for example), they aren’t being displayed because I use Ad Block Plus on my Chrome browser.

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.

 

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