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Wait, Did California Fix Political Polarization?

Other states are moving quickly to adopt reforms passed by California voters in 2010, but there may be unintended consequences.
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California State Capitol building. (Photo: Michael Warwick/Shutterstock)

California State Capitol building. (Photo: Michael Warwick/Shutterstock)

In recent decades, California has stood out among other states for its political dysfunction. Indeed, the Golden State has served for a while now as a cautionary example of where the nation as a whole could be heading. It has intensely polarized parties in its legislature, a supermajority requirement for tax increases, a balanced budget requirement, and voter-imposed spending mandates, all of which conspire to make budget politics intensely awful in all but the most stellar economies. In short, you end up with not enough money to go around, but no Republican who will agree to a tax increase and no Democrat who will agree to cut services, so you end up in an angry stalemate that leads either to budget gimmickry or some legislator sacrificing his career.

Yet somehow over the past year, the state has emerged as a model of moderation and progress. Political observers across the country have been impressed with the relative lack of acrimony, compared to the Congress and to California's own recent past. The state has passed on-time, balanced budgets while swiftly enacting new laws on such issues as education financing, immigration, and gun control. What changed?

Political observers across the country have been impressed with the relative lack of acrimony, compared to the Congress and to California's own recent past.

Several reformers and journalists (see here and here) are quick to attribute the changes to some sweeping reforms that California voters passed in 2010: non-partisan redistricting and the top-two primary. Some other states are already moving to adopt these reforms. However, in a smart post at the Monkey Cage, Eric McGhee and Paul Mitchell urge caution in crediting those reforms for the change.

Why would we doubt that those reforms are responsible? Well, for one thing, neither redistricting (PDF) nor changes in primary rules have been shown to have much influence on the partisanship of elected officials. Redistricting can certainly have a big impact on the numbers of seats that each party wins in an election, but redistricters have all sorts of motivations when coming up with new districts, and they may make districts more moderate as often as they make them more polarized. What's more, evidence shows (PDF) that the lines non-partisan redistricters draw are just as polarized as the ones drawn by partisan actors.

As for primary reform, the most comprehensive study to date of the relationship between primary rules and the partisan behavior of politicians shows basically no relationship at all. More open primaries do not seem to produce more moderate legislators. Further studies of California's top-two experiment demonstrate that the politicians elected through it are no more moderate than those elected previously, in part because primary voters can't distinguish moderates from ideologues.

So why might California be functioning better of late? Well, one big recent change came when Democrats took two-thirds of both chambers in the 2012 election cycle. That means Democrats can raise taxes without needing any Republican acquiescence (although they have not sought to do so). Combine that with a recent initiative lowering the budget passage threshold to a simple majority, and it means that the minority party has been completely dealt out of the equation. Unified party government with supermajorities is a status California hasn't experienced in a very long time, and governments that enjoy such one-party rule tend to be quite productive and harmonious.

This doesn't mean that redistricting reform and the top-two primary have had no effect. It's quite possible these reforms will, over time, substantially affect what sort of people run for office and win elections in California. As McGhee and Mitchell note, it's still early. Let's at least see how the rest of the current legislative session pans out, and maybe observe a few more election cycles before we judge these reforms successes or failures.

But given what evidence we've seen thus far, we should be very cautious in crediting such reforms for a dramatic change in California's political environment, and states shouldn't jump to adopt them. Like any other reforms, these will have unintended consequences, and given that we don't even know if the intended consequences are happening, we would do ourselves and our states a real justice by sitting back and waiting.