Research

Books

1. Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego. 2011. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. (With Steven P. Erie and Scott A. MacKenzie)
Winner of the APSA Urban Politics Section Best Book Award (2012)

 


Journal Articles

15. “Do School Report Cards Produce Accountability Through the Ballot Box?” 2016. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (Vol. 35, No. 3): pp. 639-661. (With Stéphane Lavertu and Zachary Peskowitz)

Abstract:

Public education has been transformed by the widespread adoption of accountability systems that involve the dissemination of school district performance information. Using data from Ohio, we examine if elections serve as one channel through which these accountability systems might lead to improvements in educational quality. We find little evidence that poor performance on widely disseminated state and federal indicators has an impact on school board turnover, the vote share of sitting school board members, or superintendent tenure, suggesting that the dissemination of district performance information puts little (if any) electoral pressure on elected officials to improve student achievement.

14. “When Voters Pull the Trigger: Can Direct Democracy Restrain Legislative Excesses?” 2016. Legislative Studies Quarterly (Vol. 41, No. 2): pp. 297-325.

Abstract:

Direct democracy is sometimes described as a “gun behind the door,'” but how do legislators react when voters pull the trigger? Leveraging the high-profile referendum defeat of a controversial law passed by the Ohio legislature, I examine how legislators respond to voter disaffection. Using interest groups to “bridge” votes before and after the election, I show that the measure’s defeat induced moderation on the part of the Republican legislative majority, while leaving the behavior of opposition Democrats largely unchanged. The results suggest that direct democracy has the potential to restrain legislative excesses and alleviate polarization in state legislatures.

13. “Performance Federalism and Local Democracy: Theory and Evidence from School Tax Referenda.” 2016. American Journal of Political Science (Vol. 60, No. 2): pp. 418-435. (With Stéphane Lavertu and Zachary Peskowitz)

Abstract:

Federal governments are increasingly employing empirical measures of lower-level government performance to ensure that provincial and local jurisdictions pursue national policy goals. We call this burgeoning phenomenon performance federalism and argue that it can distort democratic accountability in lower-level elections. We estimate the impact of a widely publicized federal indicator of local school district performance — one that we show does not allow voters to draw valid inferences about the quality of local educational institutions — on voter support for school tax levies in a U.S. state uniquely appropriate for this analysis. The results indicate that a federal signal of poor district performance increases the probability of levy failure — a substantively large and robust effect that disproportionately affects impoverished communities. The analysis employs a number of identification strategies and tests for multiple behavioral mechanisms to support the causal interpretation of these findings.

12. “Pushing the City Limits: Policy Responsiveness in Municipal Government.” 2016. Urban Affairs Review (Vol. 52, No. 1): pp. 3-32. (With Katherine Levine Einstein)

Abstract:

Are city governments capable of responding to the preferences of their constituents? Or is the menu of policy options determined by forces beyond their direct control? We answer these questions using the most comprehensive cross-sectional database linking voter preferences to local policy outcomes in more than 2,000 mid-size cities and a new panel covering cities in two states. Overall, our analysis paints an encouraging picture of democracy in the city: We document substantial variation in local fiscal policy outcomes and provide evidence that voter preferences help explain why cities adopt different policies. As they become more Democratic, cities increase their spending across a number of service areas. In addition, voter sentiment shapes the other side of the ledger, determining the level and precise mix of revenues on which cities rely. In short, we show that cities respond both to competitive pressures and the needs and wants of their constituents.

11. “Ballot (and Voter) ‘Exhaustion’ Under Instant Runoff Voting: An Examination of Four Ranked-Choice Elections.” 2015. Electoral Studies (Vol. 37): pp. 41-49. (With Craig M. Burnett)

Abstract:

Some proponents of municipal election reform advocate for the adoption of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a method that allows voters to rank multiple candidates according to their preferences. Although supporters claim that IRV is superior to the traditional primary-runoff election system, research on IRV is limited. We analyze data taken from images of more than 600,000 ballots cast by voters in four recent local elections. We document a problem known as ballot “exhaustion,” which results in a substantial number of votes being discarded in each election. As a result of ballot exhaustion, the winner in all four of our cases receives less than a majority of the total votes cast, a finding that raises serious concerns about IRV and challenges a key argument made by the system’s proponents.

10. “When Does Ballot Language Influence Voter Choices? Evidence from a Survey Experiment.” 2015. Political Communication (Vol. 32, No. 1): pp. 109-126. (With Craig M. Burnett)

Abstract:

Under what conditions can political elites influence elections to favor their preferred policy outcomes by strategically crafting the language printed on the ballot? Drawing on psychological and political theories of voter cognition, we design a survey experiment to assess the degree to which ballot text can influence voter behavior in direct democracy elections and identify factors that may moderate such effects. We show that the language used to describe a ballot measure does indeed have the potential to affect election outcomes, including measures dealing with contentious social issues affecting individual rights. We also find, however, that exposing individuals to basic campaign information — in our case, endorsements from prominent interest groups — greatly attenuates the framing effects of ballot text. Our results suggest that the extent to which ballot text matters depends on the vibrancy of the campaign environment and other information available to voters.

9. “Local Logrolling? Assessing the Impact of Legislative Districting in Los Angeles.” 2014. Urban Affairs Review (Vol. 50, No. 5): pp. 648-671. (With Craig M. Burnett)

Abstract:

Over the past three decades, a number of U.S. cities have shifted from at-large to district-based elections. Some observers argue that this institutional change encourages elected officials to focus on district priorities while ignoring — and perhaps even sacrificing — broader municipal needs. Must district elections bring parochialism and logrolling to city councils? Using seven years’ worth of roll call data from the Los Angeles City Council, we examine the hypothesis that district elections result in vote-trading among its members. Overall, voting behavior on the council appears inconsistent with conventional logrolling accounts and instead points to a strategy of conditional deference on the part of elected officials. The results suggest that district-based elections do not always push elected officials to ignore the general interests of their city.

8. “Mobilizing Latino Voters: The Impact of Language and Co-Ethnic Policy Leadership.” 2014. American Politics Research (Vol. 42, No. 4): pp. 677-699. (With Mike Binder, Thad Kousser, and Costas Panagopoulos)

Abstract:

Building on evidence that Latino voters participate at higher rates when co-ethnic candidates appear on the ballot, we report the results from a field experiment examining whether co-ethnic policy leadership can produce similar mobilization in direct democracy elections. The study features a direct-mail campaign conducted during California’s 2010 statewide primary election aimed at mobilizing Latino voters. The experiment included variation in the language of the message sent to voters and the extent to which it emphasized the pivotal role played by a prominent Latino official in placing the policy on the ballot. We find that mobilization messages are most effective when they target voters using their preferred language, at least for English-dominant Latinos. By contrast, our experiment yielded no evidence that co-ethnic policy leadership increased voter turnout, although we do show that female voters participate at higher rates when the mobilization campaign prominently features a high-profile female official. These divergent effects provide lessons for the study of ethnic political participation and for the design of effective mobilization campaigns aimed at boosting Latino turnout.

7. “Familiar Choices: Reconsidering the Institutional Effects of the Direct Initiative.” 2012. State Politics & Policy Quarterly (Vol. 12, No. 2): pp. 204-224. (With Craig M. Burnett)

Abstract:

Empirical evidence suggests that voters in states with direct democracy feel better prepared to cast competent votes and that they do so at a greater rate than voters elsewhere. What causal mechanism explains why the presence of direct democracy leads to better civic citizenship and differences in political behavior? We use a survey experiment in which we randomly vary the text used to describe the policy proposals to consider one possible pathway that explains higher levels of political competence among voters in initiative states. In contrast to the focus on campaign mobilization in the existing literature, we rely on insights from consumer decision theory to derive testable hypotheses about voter behavior. We find evidence that voters in initiative states approach political campaigns in a fundamentally different way than voters in noninitiative states. In particular, we show that individuals in initiative states are less susceptible to framing effects — in our experiment, strategic efforts to craft a ballot measure’s title and summary.

6. “Redistricting California: An Evaluation of the Citizens Commission Final Plans.” 2012. California Journal of Politics & Policy (Vol. 4, No. 1). (With Eric McGhee)
Cited by the California Supreme Court in Vandermost v. Bowen (2012).
Cited in this amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Abstract:

For the first time in California history, a carefully vetted commission of citizens has overseen the delicate task of redrawing the state’s political boundaries. By analyzing the maps produced by the commission and comparing these plans to the redistricting overseen by the legislature a decade earlier, we show that the new process has produced important improvements in terms of both the criteria voters said they cared about and the representational implications of interest to academics and political observers. In many respects, however, the magnitude of these gains has fallen short of what many political reformers may have hoped for. Perhaps the most important lesson from the 2011 round of redistricting is that a fair process, no matter how nonpartisan and participatory, cannot avoid the reality that any redistricting scheme produces both political winners and losers.

5. “The Irony of Comprehensive State Constitutional Reform.” 2010. Rutgers Law Journal (Vol. 41, No. 4): pp. 881-906.

Abstract:

In this essay, I draw on a new dataset covering every state constitutional convention and revision commission held since 1965 to chart the decline of comprehensive constitutional reform in the American states. I show that, long before amendments became the primary force for state constitutional evolution and innovation, piecemeal changes came to trump comprehensive reforms. Building on recent political science research on mass political behavior and direct democracy, I develop two contrasting theories of constitutional change — the “logroll” and the “poison pill” models of reform — and argue that the second best explains the experience of the American states over the past five decades. I conclude by considering the irony of state constitutional reform — the reality that comprehensive reform efforts are most likely to succeed precisely when they most resemble the incremental approach pursued by standalone constitutional amendments.

4. “Changing Tracks? The Prospect for California Pension Reform.” 2010. California Journal of Politics & Policy (Vol. 2, No. 3). (With Mathew D. McCubbins)

Abstract:

Though they cover one-tenth of all adult Californians, the state’s two largest pension funds face a bleak future, with a combined deficit in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In this paper, we examine the politics and policies behind the state’s pension train wreck, identifying two primary causes of the crisis. First, re-election minded officials have systematically underfunded the state’s public pensions in an effort to balance the budget. Second, to make up for this underfunding, pension administrators have taken on increasing risk, investing a majority of the systems’ assets in corporate stocks. This voter-sanctioned policy shift has exposed the pension funds, and their government sponsors, to increasing stock market volatility, resulting in growing pension payments at precisely the moment that state and local governments can least afford to make them.

3. “Redevelopment, San Diego Style: The Limits of Public-Private Partnerships.” 2010. Urban Affairs Review (Vol. 45, No. 5): pp. 644-678. (With Steven P. Erie and Scott A. MacKenzie)

Abstract:

Fiscally strapped local governments have increasingly turned to public-private partnerships (P3s) for redevelopment assistance, empowering private actors to exercise functions typically performed by the public sector. While P3s can enhance project funding and completion, they create the possibility of agency loss, that is, public means — tax dollars, public powers, and other resources — being diverted toward private purposes. Using a principal-agent approach, the authors examine an ambitious and widely heralded P3 in San Diego to build a downtown ballpark and encourage private investment in surrounding neighborhoods. The authors identify a set of political, institutional, and partnership conditions exacerbating agency loss and thwarting redevelopment’s public mission.

2. “Lessons from Recent State Constitutional Conventions.” 2010. California Journal of Politics & Policy (Vol. 2, No. 2).

Abstract:

Over the past 45 years, 15 American states have held constitutional conventions to confront the pressing concerns of the day. These conventions pursued markedly different paths toward constitutional reform, and achieved widely varying degrees of success. The experience of these states provides important insights for policymakers and citizens that can help identify both models worthy of emulation and the potential pitfalls of reform. The likely success of state constitutional conventions appears tied not to the identity of delegates or the selection mechanism used to recruit them but rather to the scope of the possible revisions and the way in which amendments are presented to voters for final approval. In addition, recent political history suggests that voters remain reluctant to empanel conventions to pursue wholesale reform, rejecting every call for a constitutional convention that has appeared on a state ballot since 1990.

1. “The Problem with Being Special: Democratic Values and Special Assessments.” 2009. Public Works Management & Policy (Vol. 14, No. 1): pp. 4-36. (With Mathew D. McCubbins)

Abstract:

In the face of voter-imposed tax limitations, local governments have adopted ever-more complex financial mechanisms to balance their budgets. Increasingly, municipalities in California have made use of special assessments to finance local infrastructure improvements and other vital government services. These assessments bill property owners for public goods and services in proportion to the “special benefits” that they receive. Because benefit assessments are constitutionally distinct from taxes, the growth in assessment financing has come partly as a direct response to increased constraints on the ability of local governments to raise general taxes. Our contention is that this growth should prove cause for concern due to the unusual combination of social choice pathologies to which special assessments fall vulnerable. Field interviews with public officials and the consultants they call on to help create these assessments suggest that special assessments can indeed pose special democratic problems.


Book Chapters

8. “Machine Bosses, Reformers, and the Politics of Ethnic and Minority Incorporation.” 2016. In Oxford Handbook of the History of American Immigration and Ethnicity, edited by Ron Bayor. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (With Steven P. Erie)
7. “Paradise Regained? Nonpartisan Appeals and Special Election Rules in San Diego’s 2013-14 Mayoral Race.” 2015. In Local Politics and Mayoral Elections in 21st Century America: Keys to City Hall, edited by Sean D. Foreman and Marcia L. Godwin. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis. (With Steven P. Erie, Nazita Lajevardi, and Scott A. MacKenzie)
6. “Causes of Fiscal Crises in State and Local Government.” 2015. In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
5. “From Machines to Service Centers: The Evolution of State and Local Political Parties.” 2014. In CQ Guide to Political Parties, edited by Marjorie Randon Hershey, Barry C. Burden, and Christina Wolbrecht. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
4. “Redistricting: Did Radical Reform Produce Different Results?.” 2013. In Governing California: Politics, Government, and Public Policy in the Golden State, 3rd Edition, edited by Ethan Rarick. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Public Policy Press. (With Eric McGhee)
3. “Planning L.A.: The New Politics of Neighborhood Development and Downtown Revitalization.” 2013. In New York and Los Angeles: The Uncertain Future, edited by David Halle and Andrew Beveridge. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (With Andrew Deener, Steven P. Erie, and Forrest Stuart)
2. “Great Expectations and the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.” 2011. In Reapportionment and Redistricting in the West, edited by Gary Moncrief. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. (With Thad Kousser)
1. “How G.A.V.E.L. Changed Party Politics in Colorado’s General Assembly.” 2011. In State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-First Century, edited by John Straayer, Robert Duffy, and Courtney Daum. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. (With Mike Binder and Thad Kousser)

Working Papers

1. “School District Tax Referenda, Spending Cuts, and Student Achievement (With Stéphane Lavertu  and Zachary Peskowitz)

Abstract:

Many public school districts rely on revenue from local taxes approved via popular referendum. The dynamics of these referendum elections therefore could have a significant impact on school district administration and student learning. We estimated these effects using data on more than 4,200 referenda held in Ohio districts between 2003 and 2013. The results indicate that, in the years immediately following elections, referendum failure (instead of passage) led to decreases in district expenditures of around $200 per pupil and declines of approximately 0.005 standard deviations in student-level achievement, which corresponds to about 2-3 annual “days of learning.” However, these initial impacts generally dissipate within 4-6 years, as districts eventually secure voter approval for tax levies and expenditures rebound. The analysis also examines administrative mechanisms that might explain these results and offers insights into district responses to fiscal stress, the causal impact of spending cuts on student achievement, and the transaction costs associated with using direct democracy to make school funding decisions.

Abstract:

Why do legislative parties emerge in democracies that feature candidate-centered elections? And can parties survive in the absence electoral pressure for their members to work on shared political goals? In this paper, we examine the dynamics of party emergence and maintenance in an atypical legislative context: California’s 1878-79 constitutional convention. The unusual partisan alignments among the delegates at the California convention provide us with a unique empirical opportunity to test election- and policy-based explanations for legislative discipline. Our study combines a careful reading of the historical record with a statistical analysis of the approximately 290 roll call votes cast at the convention to show how leaders of the “Nonpartisan” majority held together their disparate coalition of Democratic and Republican members in the face of conflicting preferences and well-organized political opponents. Our findings provide evidence that cohesive parties can exist even in the absence of broadly shared electoral pressures or policy goals.

Abstract:

The distribution of income lies at the intersection of states and markets, both influencing and responding to government policy. Reflecting this reality, increasing research focuses on the political origins of inequality in the U.S. However, the literature largely assumes — rather than tests — the political mechanisms thought to affect the income gap. This study provides a timely reassessment of one such mechanism. Leveraging variation in labor laws between states and differences in the timing of adoption of right-to-work legislation, I examine one political mechanism blamed by many for contributing to inequality. Using a variety of panel designs, I find little evidence that RTW laws have been major cause of growing income inequality, pointing to the importance of grounding theoretical arguments about the interrelationships between states and markets in a sound empirical reality.

Abstract:

By conditioning their support for political incumbents on observed performance outcomes, voters can motivate elected officials to represent their interests faithfully while in office. Whether elections serve this function in sub-national U.S. government remains unclear, however, because much of the existing research on retrospective voting in these contexts focuses on outcomes that are not obviously salient to voters or over which the relevant government officials have limited influence. In this study, we examine one outcome — the quality of local roads — that is both salient and unquestionably under the control of city government. Our analysis leverages within-city variation in the number of pothole complaints in one of America’s largest cities and shows that such variation can explain neighborhood-level differences in support for incumbents in two political offices — mayor and city council — across several electoral cycles.

Abstract:

Delegation of administrative authority is thought to involve a tradeoff between the discretion necessary for bureaucratic effectiveness and democratic responsiveness. In many contexts, however, discretion and responsiveness go hand-in-hand, with street-level bureaucrats tailoring their behavior to local preferences even when they implement identical statutory language. Analyzing local variation in participation rates in the national food stamp program — overseen by state-level agencies in some states and local governments in others — I show that the level of administrative centralization does not affect the degree of bureaucratic responsiveness, which is high in both institutional settings. Using data on application denial rates for a subset of these states, I provide further evidence that some of the county-level variation in program participation is a product of decisions made by local program administrators. Together, these findings offer important insights on the institutional preconditions for bureaucratic responsiveness and control.

Abstract:

At last count, U.S. voters were responsible for directly electing more than 510,000 public officials. Few of these contests feature lively campaigns or attract substantial media attention, leaving voters to make decisions with limited information. We argue that the strategies voters use to do so depend in part on ballot design — in particular, the presence or absence of partisan labels. Using two “Who Said What?” experiments, we show that voters engage in social categorization — and do so on the basis of race and ethnicity when candidates differ in their demographic background. We also find, however, that the presence of party labels shape the degree to which voters categorize candidates based on their race and ethnicity. Our results suggest that efforts to increase minority representation should look beyond electoral institutions — such as district versus at-large elections — to the structure of the ballot itself.