PR Proposal For California: Interview with Michael Latner

by Krist Novoselic // Published October 26, 2011

As FairVote covered earlier this year, Prof. Michael S. Latner and corresponding author Kyle Roach this year published a research paper: Mapping the Consequences of Electoral Reform (The California Journal of Politics & Policy - 2011 Volume 3, Issue 1) The paper states a number of incremental electoral reforms have not measurably improved government performance in California. It simulates and maps electoral outcomes under a simple form of proportional voting, or proportional representation (PR): 16 five-seat districts for the 80-seat California Assembly. The electoral formula can be variations of party-list PR.

In addition to eliminating the institutional advantage that the largest party receives under the current system, the simulation suggests that PR would diversify the composition of both major parties, and provide limited opportunities for minor parties to effectively compete throughout the state. Addressing concerns over the polarization of the state’s legislature and its effect on lawmaking, the paper predicts PR would elect more moderate legislators who, in course, would "increase the political space for moderate legislation and deal making" (pp.13).

I’ll say, and by no means critically, the proposal is modest. They don’t add any seats to the state’s tiny legislature. With PR for the state assembly, it still leaves single-member districts for the state senate and plural executive. This is basically a variation of Mixed Member Proportional system, with single-member districts for the senate and proportional voting in the house.

I recently chatted on the phone with Prof. Latner about the paper and issues surrounding it. Here's our interview.

KN: What motivated you to propose proportional representation for California elections?

ML: Electoral reform has been getting a lot of attention in the last two years, given the establishment of the redistricting commission. We also just passed in California the Top-Two run off system. More generally, California has a long history of tinkering with our electoral system in an attempt to improve representation. There is widespread recognition that California has one of the most polarized legislature among the 50 states.  We have a fairly dysfunctional legislature in terms of its performance and productivity. And this is a pretty widely shared view so I thought this would be a good time to discuss for more substantial reforms. 

Scholars of comparative politics have a well-established research literature that shows party competition is strongly affected by the rules of play, if you will, and two of the most important rules of play are district magnitude and the electoral formula that is used to convert votes into seats. We thought it would be useful to examine and do simulations using existing electoral data and then extending the analysis to a prediction of what a multi-party system would look like in California.

We can do this because of recent advances in political science. Electoral systems are among the most studied institutions in political science and the body of knowledge we have gained in the last 10 to 15 years is substantial. We know a lot about how electoral systems perform so that allows us to predict consequences. I have used California as a case study to apply some of the techniques and theory that we have developed over the last few decades.

One of the nice things about California is that we have voter initiative data, so we can actually look at ideology without being constrained to party politics. I would call the paper less of a proposal and more of a prediction. That is, it's an estimate of what we would actually get because, as you know very well, proportional representation in the United States has a derogatory connotation to it -- seen as sort of an exotic European system of representation.

Michael, you’re talking about a "parliamentary system,: right? (sic) I can’t believe how many times I get that!

Right, right. PR is seen as this foreign thing even though, as you well know, some of the electoral formulas for proportional representation were invented by Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster -- like the D’Hondt and Sainte-Laguë system  -- for allocating seats to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although there is this history of understanding PR in the United States, we have huge institutional inertia from the system that we adopted from Great Britain and seem stuck with, even while California is this virtual laboratory of experimentation. We have a history of experimentation that is healthy in a democracy, but those experiments have mostly been incremental reforms; what I would call at a statewide level as junk reforms.

Junk reforms? 

That is they are designed to put a band-aid on a problem. We have enough science over the last 50 years to know that what really matters is how many seats are up for election and what electoral formula is used. And if you really want to get competitive elections, you have to move beyond a single-seat system.

It’s so hard to promote proportional voting or even a majoritarian system like Ranked Choice Voting. You touched on this lack of awareness, misunderstandings and myths. It is great to have this paper that shows PR can be done in California. The paper is actually modest in a lot of ways. You touched on electoral systems, D’Hondt and Sainte-Laguë, these party-list systems. 

They can work with either a closed party-list or an open party-list where voters choose candidates within parties. The reason I choose Sainte-Laguë is that it is empirically the most neutral formula and therefore the fairest. What I was looking for was a formula that most clearly reflects the principle of political equality that is treating each voter equally. While a formula like D’Hondt is widely used, Sainte-Laguë is more accurate in terms of the way each voter is treated. D’Hondt still gives an advantage to larger parties, so I wanted to use the simplest, neutral formula I could to show the basic difference between a plurality system and a proportional system. They’re fair and easy to understand and of course it has to be a modest proposal because you want to have the simplest simulation possible. The more complex you try to make an electoral system the more difficult it is to predict the results.

That’s the thing about party lists systems - they’re easy to explain. Kathleen Barber in her book
Proportional Representation & Election Reform in Ohio says there is no tradition of these party lists system in English-speaking countries.

Ireland uses the single transferable vote method of proportional representation. New Zealand switched to mixed member proportional representation in the 1990s (MMP, my favorite system), and there are local proportional elections in many countries.

How does that fit into your paper?  You also mention in your paper the anti-party attitude amongst voters and elites.

Yes, that is why California is an interesting case. We have this progressive tradition that has systematically weakened parties in the state. In an attempt to open up the legislative process and make it more democratic, there has been a lot of unintended consequences. We can see one of the side effects of having fairly weak political parties in terms of legislative results, but what I wanted to address was the broader party de-alignment in the United States.

I don’t think it is reasonable to impose a strong party system on a population that is going exactly the opposite direction. The data is clear. There has been a consistent decline in party identification in California and the US as a whole, but particularly in California. There are about a quarter of registered voters who are now decline-to-state. Younger people in particular are less inclined to identify with either political party and so the idea that we would some how impose a strong party system on California just doesn’t seem realistic.

On the other hand, one of the things where I think proportionality might compliment the evolution of political culture in California is to provide more choice. What we are seeing is dissatisfaction with the two major parties.  When you have all these voters dropping out of the major parties you don’t see major registration increases in the minor parties. But that’s also a pretty reasonable response as given the electoral system; minor parties don’t have much of a chance for victory in California. So that’s a reasonable response on the part of voters. 

Yes I agree, citizens say that they’re tired of parties but they really mean; the two major parties. The two major parties are deserving of the scorn. In my opinion, they are relevant only as campaign soft money mechanisms. Recent polling tells there’s a desire for a new party / third party -- an alternative to the majors.

Partisan primaries and non-partisan elections, the anti party machine reforms, what is their effect with over 100 years on the attitudes towards political association?

I think over the long term, they do weaken party attachment. Electoral attachments in the U.S. are more personalistic, as we have a candidate-centered system. This is true and has been true for a long time. But although we now have a more polarized party system, one of the things that is happening simultaneously is that people are less inclined to identify with one of the major parties. Ideology and party identifications are becoming more congruent. This is certainly the case in California where now the average Democratic legislator is much more liberal than the average Californian and the average Republican legislator is much more conservative.

We’re seeing self-fulfilling prophesies where the results of decline in identification, less competitive elections and more partisan districts take parties further and further apart, which makes them even less attractive to Californians.      

The proponents of the Top-Two “prefers party” system promote it as a reform against this polarization.

Well, sure, and in a system that is as polarized as California, it could make a difference in a few districts. But the fact is you can’t really draw very competitive districts in California because of the geographic concentration of partisanship. The data is not very convincing that you are going to produce moderate candidates in these systems.

Let us suppose, that in a few districts you do get two Republicans or two Democrats that go in to the runoff; so you have a partisan district and two members of the same party that end up going to the runoff. This is the way that it is suppose to moderate, right? The idea is that the more moderate of those two party members will be the one that is elected because they will be able to build the coalition that includes the people that lost out in the first round.  But I’m not convinced that Democrats are going to be mobilized and turn out in a runoff election between two Republicans or vise versa.

You’ve got to look at the factors that motivate turnout.  Presumably, the competition will move into this runoff election and away from the first round. If it is not a competitive district and you look at the primaries today, the fact that the turnout in June primaries is so much lower raises a question; what kind of voters are going to turn out in the first round? They’re going to be partisans. That suggests that the people that make it to the November runoff are also going to be more partisan than the average voter.

So I am not convinced that Top-Two is going to make the sort of systemic change that reformers are looking for. And again, it’s an incremental reform that might make a difference in only a few seats. When you have a legislature that is as polarized as that of California, and when you have a supermajority rule for passing the budget, it's true that a few seats could make a difference on occasion.  But I don’t think it is going to fundamentally change the nature of the partisanship in Sacramento, which, is what most Californians want to address.

What do you think of the Independent Redistricting Commission’s new maps for the districts in California?

I’m trying to look at them but I’ve crashed a few computers at our University library trying to map the data using GIS.  So far, the results are fairly predictable. There looks like there will be some more competitive districts, certainly in the congressional seats.  My own district, for instance. Right now, I am in Kevin McCarthy’s district. Lois Capp’s 23rd district is on the coast and is probably one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country right now. It looks a little like Chile - sort of running up the coast. The new district will be a more competitive one. McCarthy’s district might become a little more competitive too. But again, the bottom line in California is that it is very hard to create competitive districts.

There is also a theoretical argument that you don’t really want districts that are fully competitive because if you have district that are always 51% / 49%, lets say, then half of the voters don’t have any representation.  Again this tradeoff is just a product of the single-seat district, winner-take-all system. 

Our independent commission in Washington is a different setup but it’s looking like it’s going to be an incumbent protection deal at the end.  I wouldn’t be surprised because the legislators have to vote on the maps.

Right, and you know the idea of non-partisan commission is a bit of an oxymoron. My guess would be that if these current maps pass judicial muster and pass the challenges that are being heard right now, they look like they will be somewhat more competitive and look like they might be an improvement over the what is one of the purest forms of an incumbent protection system -- which was the districts that were drawn after 2000 by both major parties in California.

You know 9-11-01 was a terrible tragedy that commanded so much attention. Even here in Washington, redistricting at that time was under the radar.

In California, the 1990 redistricting was eventually thrown into the courts. Neither party wanted that to happen again so there was a very strong incentive to create a bi-partisan incumbent protection plan. That’s exactly what they did after 2000. 

Right, so your paper opens things up.  What’s interesting about it is there would be moderate Republicans coming out of the Bay area and Los Angeles and moderate Democrats coming out of inland California.  Do you want to touch on that a little bit?

Sure, I think one of the results that comes out pretty clearly is, and is something that we would expect to find. The largest party in the state has the advantage in a single district system. And by virtue of just changing the system to PR, Democrats would lose 4 or 5 seats. So you would think that Republicans would be advocates for reform because they would clearly benefit from a more proportional system. I would love to see them take that to the legislature.

Again this speaks to the question of genuine reform versus more superficial reforms. If we had moderate Republicans elected from the most populous areas of the state and more moderate Democrats coming from central valley and the mountain regions, then you would see a genuine change in partisan dynamics in the legislature; because these new legislators would be representing people who right now aren’t being represented in the legislature.  It would be more genuine reform in my opinion.

I see that also. The paper also states that out of these five seat assembly districts, there could be space for minor party or independent candidates.

Absolutely, this is what scares both the major parties.  They might not agree on anything but the one thing they do agree on is they don’t want competition. Right, now that’s the more speculative part of the paper, certainly.  Because trying to predict what sort of parties will emerge is certainly an interesting prediction but it is also more speculative than scientific.

Nevertheless, California provides this wonderful experiment. We have all this initiative data that tells us about peoples’ ideological orientations. We can study that geographically and see what sort of parties would most likely survive within those five district regions.

And we don’t really know what kind of new forms of association will emerge. I promote proportional representation, not because I like to explain vote transfers to people. My thing is association -- that when people get together they amplify their voice.  We see this in the internet phenomenon.  We see it with the money bomb.  Obama for America, he raised a lot of money through small contributions.


I am a member of the Washington State Grange.  My wife and I volunteer at our Grange.  The Grange is a civic group.  It’s a fraternal group and we raise money to give it away.  We do community things and there’s an advocacy aspect too. We can promote certain issues, that can create tensions with the fraternal part of the group but perhaps, that’s another issue

It’s part of that old school progressive tradition

You can go to the old part of town and you see the old Eagles Club or other fraternal group building boarded up or falling apart. It’s Bowling Alone…Putman…the social capital. People can ask me, “Krist how do we get people involved and back in association?”  Well, association is exploding with social networking --Twitter, Facebook, those kind of things.  I believe it is a matter of time before somebody comes up with the right mix of political association and social networking -- and there is your new party.

You really hit on what is a true dilemma. We have a lot of scientific research and historical data suggesting we know how to get a multi-party system, right, but the reality is that the politics of electoral reform show that you have to get a party in power before there is reform. You don’t get reform from the established parties because they are not going to weaken their own status, right, so you have got to get some electoral success in order to start driving that reform.

I think it is just a matter of time before we are going to get proportional voting because it can accommodate the phenomenon of how the information revolution is transforming democracy in the United States.

I think you’re right there, and historical evidence backs that up as well.  If you look at electoral reform across the world over the last 15 to 20 years, there is a clear preference in the direction of more proportional elections. If you look at countries like Japan, New Zealand, Italy and newer democracies; the direction of what sorts of electoral systems are established or revised, they are all going in the direction of greater proportionality. So I think you have a point. 

One of the things we are seeing, is the energy there is in dissatisfaction with both political parties. It’s a question of there being the right set of enabling conditions to facilitate a real reform movement. I hope the part that I can play with the scientific community is to provide the evidence we need in order to make the best decisions.

Related: See FairVote's blogpost with a proposal for proportional voting in congressional elections in California. We will soon post an analysis of a proposed plan for state legislative elections.