California Elections: How Not to Critique a Study

Former California State Senator Steve Peace, one of the architects of the state’s recent top-two election system, has written an opinion piece blasting some recent scholarship on the top-two. (We’ve got a whole blog series going on this scholarship here.) He particularly (and rather vindictively) singles out UCSD political scientist Thad Kousser for an article he wrote on voter and candidate behavior under the top-two system.

Kousser is an outstanding and impartial scholar and certainly doesn’t need defending from me. So instead I’ll just focus on Peace.

Peace seems particularly hung up on Kousser’s discussion of voter turnout. The top-two was widely predicted to be a boon to voter turnout since it would give moderates and members of the minority party in a district greater incentive to participate. But that really hasn’t happened. Turnout in 2012 was pretty typical for recent California elections, and turnout in 2014 was dramatically low for a California midterm. This sort of evidence is not acceptable to Peace, though:

[Kousser] zeroed in on low voter turnout, without any reference to the historical lows experienced across the country in partisan primary states.
Did he mention the 14 percent turnout in Texas? No.
The 6 percent turnout in New Jersey? No.
The 9.7 percent in Iowa? No.

Here’s the thing. If you want to understand whether or not a change in election laws changed voter turnout within a state, the key comparison is to that same state before the change. You want to crow that California had a higher turnout than Texas? That’s a pretty low bar. When was the last election that wasn’t true? It’s certainly possible that turnout in California would have fallen by more in 2014 if the top-two hadn’t been enacted, but that’s a hard case to make. What seems abundantly clear is that the top-two has not had a large stimulative effect on turnout.

Peace makes a number of other claims about the successes of the top-two that are highly specious. He suggests that it made the legislature more moderate, which enabled it to work with the governor to solve budgetary problems. Okay, maybe, or maybe the last session was a productive and harmonious one because Democrats had achieved a two-thirds majority in both chambers and could pass budgets without Republican votes. And by the way, some scholarship suggests that legislators have actually become more extreme under the top-two system.

Peace also argues that the top-two has introduced more competitive elections to California. Okay, maybe, but its implementation coincided with a redistricting plan that shifted around many district lines, encouraging more electoral challenges. So we may see greater competition over time, but it’s a bit early to make that claim.

In general, though, Peace remains quite hostile toward scholarship throughout the article, suggesting scholars are in the pockets of the political parties and are producing biased work. His attitude toward scholarship is well summed up well by this statement:

The best evidence of just how well Prop. 14 is working is the frenetic effort of an only thinly-disguised series of “studies” by partisan-backed “academics” to claim the opposite.

Translation: If academic scholarship shows something isn’t working, that’s clear evidence that it’s working. Similarly, the best evidence that tobacco is safe is the frenetic effort of a series of studies by academics showing that’s it’s harmful.

Obviously, Peace has a dog in this fight, and it’s certainly fine for him to make his arguments and interpret the available evidence as he sees fit. But to elevate his ostensibly nonpartisan opinions over thorough scholarship while trying to tarnish the reputations of the scholars involved does his cause no favors, and it’s more than a little obnoxious.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

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