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Report · May 2018

Political Reform and Moderation in California’s Legislature: Did Electoral Reforms Make State Representatives More Moderate?

Eric McGhee

California implemented several important election reforms at the start of this decade. Each was intended in part to promote more flexible, moderate decision-making among California’s elected officials in an era of increasingly acrimonious partisan conflict. This report looks at the moderating effect of three reforms: the shift of authority to draw legislative and congressional districts from the state legislature to an independent redistricting commission; the loosening of term limits for state legislators; and a highly open “top two” primary system.

This report does not take a position on whether moderation ought to have been a goal of these reforms, but it does explore whether moderation was one of their effects. Were politicians elected after the reforms more moderate, on average, than the ones elected before? To what extent can we attribute these changes to one reform or another?

There are many ways to define “moderation.” In the context of this analysis, a legislator’s moderation is his or her willingness to vote with different political factions when bills come to a vote on the chamber floor (i.e., after being reported out of committee). The report offers the following conclusions about the impact of reform on moderation:

  • The Democratic caucus in California’s state legislature is somewhat more moderate under the reforms. The Democratic congressional delegation is also slightly more moderate, but there is no evidence of increased moderation among Republicans in either the congressional delegation or the state legislature.
  • The increased moderation among Democrats is likely the combined effect of all three reforms-each appears to have had at least some effect on moderation in the Democratic legislative caucus.
  • The increased moderation of California’s Democratic legislators becomes more significant in relation to their counterparts in other states, who have become considerably more liberal over this same period.
  • Democratic moderation does not appear to reflect a shift in donation strategies. California’s Democratic legislative caucus has not received a significantly larger share of its campaign money from traditionally Republican sources after the reforms.

Overall, then, the reforms appear to have had a small combined effect on moderation in California’s representation, which takes on a larger significance in the context of other states. The significantly larger impact on Democrats in the state legislature leaves important questions about the reason for that concentrated effect, since it does not seem to be linked to campaign contributions from conservative sources. However, the reforms are still new; their role and effect are likely to become clearer over time.


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