Reformers Bark Up the Wrong Tree

Joe Mathews, my partner in Crackupery, is going toe-to-toe August 2 in an Olympian debate at the Sacramento Press Club against world champion spinner Dan Schnur. The topic is recent political reform and its effects.

Schnur, a member of that lost tribe known as moderate (dare I say liberal?) Republicans, is a champion of the belief that the rules of the political game need to be changed in California so that the people elected to Legislature are, well, more like him. Okay, that sounds a little crass. It would be oh-so-partisan to rig the rules of the game to favor one particular point of view. So let me be more generous. Reformers believe that California needs political reform to make the Legislature more representative of the views of the people—which would only incidentally result in the election of people more like them.


But that raises a question. Is California state government truly unrepresentative of the voters’ wishes? How does California compare to other states?

The best evidence I’ve found comes from a new paper, “The Democratic Deficit in the States,” by Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips, political scientists at Columbia University.

One task of recent political science research has been to gauge how well state political institutions give citizens what they want. The results have confirmed what most of us suspect from casual observation. State governments don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Governments in states with liberal voters have more liberal policies; governments with conservative voters lean to the right. At least at the basic level of ideological climate, states are democratically responsive.

Lax and Phillips take that research to a deeper level. They look not just at whether the overall trend of state governments’ actions leans in the same direction as average voter ideology. Recognizing that beneath the average lurks a complicated mix of differing views on particular issues, they ask a more difficult question: How often do the particular policies adopted by state governments match the majority voter opinion in the state on that same issue? They compare state government action and majority opinion on 39 specific policy issues across eight different issue areas. And from that data they determine what factors contribute to aligning governments’ decisions with voters’ wishes.

Overall, the news they deliver is less than cheerful. Although state governments are somewhat responsive to voter majorities on particular issues—the bigger the opinion majority on an issue, the more likely state policy will match it—Lax and Phillips found “a rather striking democratic deficit in state policymaking.” Across the nation as a whole, state policies match voter views only 48 percent of the time. “In other words, state governments are on average no more effective in translating opinion majorities into public policy than a simple coin flip,” they write.

At this point, if you are a typical Californian, you are nodding. The approval rating of the Legislature hovers in the low 20s. The last two governors have left office with ratings just as low. Lax and Phillips have just confirmed what we already know, right?

Except for one small thing. According to their data, when it comes to representing, California is Number 1. No other state government does better than California’s at matching policy action to public opinion.

California state policy is congruent with majority opinion 69 percent of the time, well ahead of the national rate. California state government is almost twice as likely as, say, Oregon’s to deliver the policies its voters want. When it fails, it does so moderately. In the cases where California action and opinion don’t match up, policy leans liberal or conservative in almost equal measure, unlike states such as Texas and Florida, which are both less responsive to voter opinion and incongruent mostly to one (the conservative) side.

Why, then, are Californians so unhappy with state government? Part of the explanation may be that they know so little about it, both because they pay notice only when it’s in crisis and because the media cover state government so incompletely and so negatively.

But the larger reason has to do with the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Lax and Phillips don’t measure policy congruence on fiscal issues like school spending or tax levels. Yet it is precisely over such issues that state government has foundered in the last decade. Californians’ views on the Legislature and governor have been shaped by budget delays, deep deficits, IOUs, and spending cuts.

And why has state government delivered those unhappy outcomes? It’s not because the people we elected are unrepresentative. It’s because all the super-majoritarian whips and chains in the constitution prevent the majority from doing what the voters send them to Sacramento to do.

If California’s government leads the nation in responsiveness on non-fiscal issues, but gridlocks over money issues because of constitutional constraints, our biggest need isn’t electoral reform. Reformers like Dan Schnur are barking up the wrong tree.