The Effects of Primary Election Rules on Legislative Behavior

Do the rules governing primary elections affect the behavior of elected officials? I’ve mentioned some earlier research suggesting that it doesn’t. But Michael Alvarez and Betsy Sinclair have a new article out indicating the opposite. In their paper “Electoral Institutions and Legislative Behavior,” just out with Political Research Quarterly, they do a social network analysis of California Assembly members elected during the blanket primary system, which existed in that state from 1998 to 2000.* They find that there’s higher legislative agreement (members voting the same way) across party lines for those first elected through the blanket primary than for those first elected through the closed primary. They further suggest that in a chamber in which everyone were originally elected through the blanket primary, there would be a roughly 5 percent increase in legislative agreement.

This is a very interesting finding, suggesting that creating a more open primary can actually create a more collegial legislature. It’s hard to know just how much this increase in comity might actually affect the policy output of the chamber or whether this increased agreement would only occur on symbolic votes, but it’s still suggestive, and encouraging for those who have been advocating primary reform in California and elsewhere. We should have some additional data to test this idea next year in the wake of Proposition 14.

(h/t John Sides)

*A paper that deals with networks, the California Assembly, and primary election laws? Talk about the trifecta! If it had only mentioned Star Wars, this would be the most amazing paper ever.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.