Reform and Representation: Assessing California’s Top-Two Primary and Redistricting Commission


Can electoral reforms such as an independent redistricting commission and the top-two primary create conditions that lead to better legislative representation? We explore this question by presenting a new method for measuring a key indicator of representation – the congruence between a legislator’s ideological position and the average position of her district’s voters. We do this by combining two cutting-edge methods: the joint classification of voters and political candidates on the same ideological scale using a common policy survey, along with multilevel regression and post-stratification to estimate the position of the average voter across many districts in multiple elections. After describing and validating our approach, we use it to study the recent impact of electoral reforms in California. We draw on the predictions of reforms and the logic of spatial voting to show how the Citizens Redistricting Commission and the top-two primary might lead to a better fit between the state’s voters and lawmakers. Then, by comparing levels of congruence and other trends in elections before (2010) and after (2012) the implementation of reform, we show that California’s electoral experiments did not bring their hoped-for effects. If anything, legislators strayed further from their district’s average voter in 2012. In sum, this paper lays out a replicable, practical method of gauging legislative representation, and applies it to show that attempts to improve representation do not always bear fruit.

Political Science Research and Methods