“Fine-tuning” of election laws will not solve polarization

Today’s USA Today headline story reports the results of a survey describing how Americans are supportive of a number of “fine-tuning” election reforms that could potentially alter the partisan gridlock which “could make a difference in the kind of government that follows.” These are: 1) put non-partisan commissions in charge of state legislative redistricting, 2) allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries, and 3) enact voter ID laws.

The headline gives the impression that these proposals would make a big difference in our political system and could potentially assuage the gridlock and paralysis in D.C. Indeed, the deadline on page 6A reads: “Fine-tuning could free D.C. to function.” Although the author says that these ideas have the support of “some political scientists,” there is not much evidence (that I am aware of) that would suggest that any of these reforms would drastically alter election outcomes. To wit:

  • One of the most popular misconceptions about contemporary political polarization in Congress is that it’s caused by partisan redistricting: partisan legislators redraw lines that create lopsided ideological districts. It’s an appealing argument. If that were the case, though, we would expect polarization to be absent in legislative bodies whose district lines never change… like the U.S. Senate. However, the Senate has become hyper-polarized without any partisan redistricting, so it follows that redistricting is not to blame for the polarization. (More here.) To be fair, the author acknowledges such in the article, but only after quoting in some detail individuals who think that nonpartisan redistricting commissions could likely make a substantial difference.
  • The argument for allowing Independents to vote in partisan primaries has logical appeal: victorious candidates would have to appeal to ideological moderates in addition to ideological extremists, therefore the average candidate that emerges from a primary would be more ideologically moderate as a result. This assumes that Independents would vote at the same rates as ideological partisans in primaries, though, which is not the case. (According to the 2012 ANES survey, Independents vote at a rate somewhere around 20-30% lower than partisans.) Even in states were Independents can vote in primaries, it’s usually the more active, enthusiastic, and ideologically extreme partisans who dominate the primary electorate. 
  • Evidence also suggests that voter ID laws don’t substantially alter either voter turnout or partisan outcomes (see also here). 

In sum, the roots of partisan polarization are long and deep, and won’t be significantly altered by tweaking a few institutional rules here and there. The current polarization will end when the partisan ideological coalitions shift to produce more ideological diversity within the two major parties, or we change the Constitution to permit a nation-wide proportional representation system. And neither seems likely in the near future.

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