Ten Miles Square

Blog

August 28, 2013 7:33 AM Is Primary Reform Enabling Immigration Reform? Probably Not.

By Seth Masket

Laura Meckler in the Wall Street Journal suggests that immigration reform may have an improved chance in the U.S. House thanks to the moderating effect of California’s top-two election system, under which all candidates compete among the same primary voters and the top two vote-getters go on to a November runoff:

At least four Republican House members from California are supporting some sort of path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while a half-dozen others appear open to an immigration overhaul. GOP delegations from other states, on the whole, are neutral, skeptical or opposed to a broad rewrite of the laws.
The stance of California lawmakers reflects many factors, including the state’s large population of Hispanics and its strong agricultural and high-tech interests, all of whom overwhelmingly favor an immigration overhaul. But people who follow state politics say another prominent consideration is that California lawmakers no longer run in party primaries.

I tend to think the demographic factors are a lot more salient here than the election rules are. Allow me to link here to the paper I did with Nolan McCarty, Eric McGhee, Steve Rogers, and Boris Shor (now forthcoming from AJPS!) showing that variations in the openness of primaries seem to have no relationship to the moderation or extremism of a state’s elected officials. It’s still a bit early on the California case — we’re less than a year into their top-two experiment — but there’s not much evidence from other states that opening things up will give you more moderate officeholders. The people that show up in primaries still tend to be very partisan voters, and parties are pretty skilled at advantaging the candidates they like even in difficult circumstances.

Advocates of the top-two reform nonetheless place great faith in its transformative power. As Meckler’s story continues:

The primary system appears to be a factor in some GOP lawmakers’ deliberations on immigration, analysts say. Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said [Rep. Jeff] Denham’s [R-Central Valley] stance is “unequivocally” influenced by the fact that he won’t face conservative opposition in a GOP primary next year, adding, “He would have a completely different challenge.”

Actually, we have no idea what kind of opposition Denham or any other Republican will face next year. In theory, the openness of the top-two system encourages the entry of moderate candidates. But ideologically extreme ones can end up doing quite well, for the simple fact that voters have a very hard time distinguishing between ideologically extreme and moderate candidates. Oh, and it turns out that parties have responded to the top-two by issuing endorsements for their favorite candidates, and those endorsements matter quite a bit. So now candidates have additional incentive to run to the extremes, rather than to the center, to win the favor of their party.

All of this has produced a situation in which California’s legislators are no more moderate, relative to their districts, under the top-two regime than they were before. Indeed, they may even be a bit more polarized.

I’m not venturing any predictions about immigration reform specifically. But if it does end up passing thanks to the support of some key California representatives, the top-two reform is not likely to be the reason.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Back to Home page

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

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus