Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Electoral Institutions and Legislative Behavior: The Effects of Primary Processes

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Electoral Institutions and Legislative Behavior: The Effects of Primary Processes

Article excerpt


Electoral institutions can affect the voting behavior of legislators who are elected through those institutions. In this article, the authors apply social network theory to study patterns of legislative choices under different primary election systems, and this approach leads the authors to study how electoral institutions affect legislative behavior differently than most previous research-that is, they focus on how electoral institutions affect the interactions between legislators. The authors use data on legislative voting behavior from the California State Assembly and exploit the changes that have been implemented in California's primary elections process over the past two decades. Specifically, they hypothesize that legislators who were elected during the years in which a nonpartisan blanket primary was used in California (1998 and 2000) will be more centrally networked and more likely to compromise with other legislators. They find evidence to support their hypothesis: legislators elected under the nonpartisan blanket primary are more likely to agree with other legislators. Electoral institutions, especially primary elections, have important effects on legislative behavior. The authors' results have implications for highly polarized state legislatures.


primary election, social networks, California state assembly

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It has become almost a truism in the study of legislative behavior that "institutions" of any deliberative body serve to constrain the space of possible outcomes and thereby shape the behavior of legislators (e.g., Shepsle 1979). While much of the research in this area has focused on "institutions" internal to the deliberative body itself- for example, legislative committees-there has not been as much analysis of how institutions that are more exogenous to the legislative process also help determine legislative behavior.

The American founding fathers recognized the importance of largely exogenous institutions on legislative behavior, in particular those institutions that are used to elect legislators to office. For example, Madison (1787, Retrieved from fed15.htm) wrote in Federalist 51 that different methods of election were critical components in maintaining checks on legislative authority: "In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconvenience is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and common dependence on the society will admit." These early political theorists recognized the important role that electoral institutions play in shaping legislative behavior.

In this article we study how one electoral institution (primary elections) might shape legislative behavior. While primary elections might have not been envisioned by political theorists like Madison, in today's era of partisan politics primary elections play a very important role in determining who is elected to legislative offices. While researchers debate the causes (arguing about the relative impacts of incumbency advantages, campaign finance, and district gerrymandering, to name but a few of the suspects), those same researchers seem to agree that at both federal and state levels, legislative general elections have grown significantly less competitive in recent decades (Weber, Tucker, and Brace 1991; Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning 2006). The locus of competition in legislative elections has shifted from the general election to the primary elections, which is one important reason for our focus on the potential of primary elections to influence legislative behavior. For example, in the three election cycles before 2008 in California, the state we study in this article, only 4 of 495 legislative and congressional races had seats that changed parties (Skelton 2008). …

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