California’s uncompetitive districts

It is really hard to over-state just how uncompetitive California’s single-seat legislative districts are.

Here are some stats (calculated by me from the LA Times day-after report, so don’t consider them “official”):

State Assembly (80 districts)
68.59% mean winner’s share
7 (8.8%) uncontested (i.e.winner with 100%)
65.10% mean winner’s share in contested seats
12 (15.0%) won with 55% or less
1 won by less than 50% ((District 10, an open seat in the Sacramento area, apparently won by Republican Jack Sieglock (70,161 votes, 46.92%) over Democrat Allyson Huber (69,136 votes, 49.23%). Libertarian Janice Bonser won around 7%. This one has subsequently narrowed and is not yet called.))
51 (63.4%) won by the Democrat

State delegation to US House (53 districts)
71.06% mean winner’s share
7 (13.2%) uncontested
66.77% mean winner’s share in contested seats
6 (11.3%) won with 55% or less
1 won by under 50% ((And two more with less than 50.1%. The one sub-majority winner would be in District 3 northeast of Sacramento, where Republican Dan Lungren was reelected (117,609 votes, 49%) over Democrat William Dunston (105,288, 44%). An independent won 4% and a Libertarian 2%.))
35 (66.04%) won by the Democrat

State Senate (20 of 40 districts up this year)
64.45% mean winner’s share
none uncontested
4 won with 55% or less
0 won with under 50% (but one at 50.02%)
12 (60%) won by the Democrat

That’s uncompetitive! And unrepresentative: I do not know what the Democrats’ statewide vote was–these sorts of things are largely secret in American democracy–but it wasn’t 66%, or even 60%.

With the outcome of Prop. 11, which would create an “independent” commission to redraw district lines for the Assembly and state Senate, still uncertain (but most likely approved), can anyone convincingly argue that it is possible for an “independent” commission to improve this situation significantly? I have my doubts…

Evidently the footnotes plug-in is not working well with the new Word Press software. Sometimes the footnotes do not appear at all. Sometimes they appear, but with “aa” for each footnote marker, instead of numbers. Sorry; I might be able to fix it–one of these days.

7 thoughts on “California’s uncompetitive districts

  1. I just noticed that the footnotes appear (for me, at least) when viewing the post’s own page, but not when viewing the front page.


  2. Before Prop. 11, Bruce Cain et al at IGS were arguing independent redistricting would reduce some victory margins. But IGS was frank; California’s political geography is hard to overcome.

    Whether reduced victory margins are signs of more “competitiveness” is another question. Most 55% districts are pretty safe outside of extraordinary elections.

    Independent redistricting is, more than not, a solution in search of a problem. Based on the experiences in other states with independent redistricting, it does not lead to exceptional seat turnover or exceptionally close elections.

    The question would-be reformers should ask is: “What are we angry at in legislative politics?” Once the problem is defined, discussing the types and merits of reforms will be more fruitful.

  3. …and TDP’s footnotes have been broken for a long time. WP needs a new footnotes implementation.

  4. I think using percentage shares of the vote in each district seriously overstates competitiveness. A better indicator would be the percentage of districts in which both of the two major parties spend a significant amount of money. It shouldn’t be hard to define “significant” if, as I suspect, the distribution of expenditures is bimodal.

  5. As an outcome variable, it is hard to beat margin of victory as a measure of competitiveness. (With essentially 2 candidates, vote share of one candidate is obviously almost as good as margin between them.)

    Margin is certainly endogenous to a series of strategic choices made by politicians and parties and campaign-financiers, etc. That is, where high-quality and well financed candidates challenge incumbents, or two parties both have good candidates for an open seat, the margin is likely to be narrower. So, if we wanted to ‘model’ variance in margin, we certainly would want to know which districts had ‘quality’ candidates and how spending (and other indicators of strategic effort by presumably rational actors) were distributed.

    But margin is about as good an indicator of how competitive a contest is as anyone is likely to invent.

  6. Maybe it is that California just has a imperfect bipolarism dominant party system, but somehow the Democrats are not that dominant because they are not able to win a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

    I do agree that redistricting commission isn’t going to make anything better. The state legislature is too small for the population that California has, it has to increase in size, but will voters approve of an increase in the size of the state legislature? People don’t want more politicians, look at New Zealand when they increase the size of their parliament from 99 to 120, and now it’s 122 because of the overhang.

    What about other state legislatures, like I heard in Connecticut and Hawaii, in both state legislatures that the Democrats have a two-thirds majority veto proof majority in both chambers and the governors are Republican.

    (I don’t understand this is going off track, but why do we have bicameralism at the state level when both chambers are essentially redundant?) Why aren’t more states like Nebraska and embrace unicameralism? At least in Australia, there are differences between the state chambers in that country, because the different electoral methods.

    Okay now back on track, The governor there becomes ceremonial when there veto is powerless and the party in the legislature has a two-thirds majority and the legislature rules the state. I guess the speaker is there is a sort of prime minister, hey they got semi-presidentialism and don’t know it.

    Checks and balance there seem artificial when we have these combination in Hawaii and Connecticut with a Republican Governor and a Democratic State Legislature with a two-thirds majority. Any other U.S states that have this pattern? It seems very ironic.

  7. Bicameralism at the state level is another of those American vestiges of a long-forgotten past. Before Baker vs. Carr, most states had second chambers that were highly malapportioned. The US Supreme Court struck that down, and now the second chambers of the states are indeed redundant. (As trivia buffs know, Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral. It is also officially nonpartisan, a feature I like quite a bit less.)

    I have always fancied combining the two houses of the California legislature. No increase in the number of legislators, but just fold them in to one. A single chamber of 120 would still be small for this big a state, but it’s better than two of 80 and 40. This would also make MMP feasible (80 SSDs, 40 PR seats) or STV (which could use the current Senate districts to elect 3 legislators). Of course, this is all fantasy…

    I would not agree that the governor is “ceremonial” when the opposing party has two-thirds majorities. There is still a great deal of executive power vested in the governor (at least in this state) that remains relevant regardless of the legislative composition. And it certainly does not render the system semi-presidential (or should we say semi-gubernatorial?).

    Keep in mind as well that in California and some other states, there are separately elected executives other than the governor (who are sometimes from a different party), and they have some unilateral executive authority (Attorney General, Controller, Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, etc.). State politics can be quite weird!

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