SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 9, 2008 — Contrary to conventional wisdom about redistricting reform, there’s little evidence that it would reduce partisanship in Sacramento, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The PPIC analysis of legislative voting patterns finds that the 2001 redistricting – which has been blamed for gridlock over the budget and a polarized legislature – did not make legislators more partisan. Creating new election districts is unlikely to make the legislature more moderate, the report concludes.
“There was just as much partisanship in the late 1990s as there was in the mid-2000s,” says PPIC research fellow Eric McGhee. “Redistricting did not make California legislators more partisan. They were partisan to begin with.”
Disillusion with the redistricting process — which allows legislators to draw district lines and, in effect, choose their own voters—has fueled moves to give redistricting authority to a more impartial body. The latest is Proposition 11, on the November ballot, which would give an independent commission of citizens the power to draw the legislative map. The PPIC report does not examine Proposition 11 nor assess other goals offered by proponents of redistricting reform. The report, Redistricting and Legislative Partisanship, focuses solely on whether the 2001 redistricting made legislators more partisan by protecting incumbents from serious election challenges.
Many advocates for redistricting reform argue that by creating “safe seats” immune from challenge by the other party, the legislature eliminated any incentive for lawmakers to support positions that would appeal to moderate voters in a competitive district. But the PPIC examination of the relationship between a legislator’s constituency and voting record contradicts the view that partisan districts made lawmakers more partisan. Among its key findings:
- Legislators are more likely to vote with their own party than to respond to the partisan makeup of their districts on most issues most of the time.
- Moderate legislators are not consistently found in the districts that are more politically balanced. About half the legislators from evenly divided districts are not moderate on any issue examined by the report.
- Legislators who served both before and after the 2001 redistricting did not change their voting patterns in response to changes in the partisanship of their districts.
- Changing legislative districts to resemble those before 2001 would probably not change the outcomes of many specific votes on the state budget or contentious business regulation issues.
As the PPIC report points out, political polarization has increased in governing bodies where redistricting is not a factor, such as the U.S. Senate. The report suggests other reasons that might explain the rise of partisanship, including increased partisan polarization among voters, pressure from party leaders to toe the party line, and the growing influence of single-issue activists and interest groups that pour money into legislative races.
The report suggests that if voters want bipartisan compromise, there may be more effective ways to reach that goal than redrawing district lines. Among them:
- Open primaries: Evidence from other states suggests that allowing any eligible registered voter to vote in a political party’s primary may result in the election of more moderate legislators than if the primary is closed to such voters.
- Campaign finance reform: Stricter caps on campaign contributions may lessen the influence of interest groups.
- Mobilization of moderates: Bringing the voters who sit on the sidelines into the debate – through a third-party movement, interest group, or energizing candidate – would ensure that moderate voices are heard and give some legislators the freedom to act as swing votes.
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.