Friday, November 30, 2012

Did Our Electoral Reforms Make Any Difference?

This month Californians experienced a full round of elections under our new open primary, top-two election system and our new legislative lines, drawn for the first time in the state's history by an independent redistricting commission.
So did the systems fulfill their purposes? With respect to the top-two system, the terrific Joe Mathews recently said "no."
Under the top two system any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, and the top-two voter-getters, again regardless of party affiliation proceed to the general election. Instead of our typical primary elections in which we nominated a party representative to proceed to the general election, we have one large "open primary." And instead of our typical general election in which party nominees face off, we have something more like a runoff election in which only the top two candidates compete.
The purpose of the top-two system was to elect more moderate candidates. The idea was that the winner of each election would have to appeal to the entire electorate twice, and would therefore have to appeal to voters from both major parties.
First, there were 28 races in which two candidates from the same party competed against each other. The best-known example of these intra-party fights may be the scorched-earth contest between incumbent Democratic Congressmen Bran Sherman and Howard Berman. Sherman ultimately came out ahead in that race. Second, Democrats now control a super majority of both legislative state houses. An increase in the number of registered Democrats in California is also an important factor in allowing Democrats to obtain a two-thirds majority in the state assembly and state senate, but as Mathews pointed out, this could show that the top-two election system has not led to less partisanship or more independents in the legislature.
We also held a full round of elections under new legislative maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission rather than legislators. One of the purposes of the creation of the independent redistricting commission was to eliminate the ability of incumbents to draw legislative lines in order to keep their seats safe, instead of drawing legislative legislatives lines to keep communities of interest together.
Shortly after the election, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) issued a reportdetailing a number of interesting facts, some of which can be attributed, at least in part, to the new reforms. The biggest sign on how they made a difference was the competitiveness, which led -- in what Mathews and I seem to both agree -- to more costly elections.
Additionally, Mathews may well be correct (as he is about so many other things) that the top two is worth ditching. He points to a lack of increased engagement in state races, a lack of benefit to independents and moderates, and no change to partisanship or number of incumbents. In addition, as Mathews explains, and as I have written about in depth, the top-two system all but guarantees that third party candidates will not appear on the general election ballot.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jessica Levinson sits in for Ian Masters: Political Reform in California

Here is a link to the radio program I guest hosted on 11/26/12 on KPFK.

We covered topics related to politics and political reform in California. My terrific guests were Ann Ravel, Chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Kathay Feng, Executive Director of California Common Cause, and Torey Van Ooot, political reporter for the Sacramento Bee.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Viewpoints: Initiatives are controlled by backers with bankrolls

I published this Op-Ed in today's Sacramento Bee.

Here is the first paragraph:

As we enter a state commonly known as campaign withdrawal, we can look back and sigh, knowing, with few exceptions, who we elected to represent us. But we didn't just elect representatives; we also enacted laws, on our own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Time for 'Educational Trips' for Our Elected Officials

As the holidays approach many of you may feel like getting out of town. So do our elected officials.

Many take this time before the legislative session begins to go on so-called "educational" trips. In and of itself this could, at least in some cases, be a good idea: Officials can learn about various business and environmental issues. But the wrinkle is that special interests groups largely, if not exclusively, fund many of these trips, meaning they are often categorized as gifts.

The educational experience appears to vary widely among the trips. In some cases our officials meet with foreign officials; in other cases they appear to spend much of their time on recreational activities -- like golf.

Our elected officials should not be expected to stay home and/or avoid any contact with lobbyists and special interests as they often serve important purposes. However, it is of course important to remember that almost by definition these lobbyists and special interests are seeking to obtain favorable outcomes from elected officials and those officials must at times regulate those interest groups. Close relationships can, in other words, create or appear to create conflicts of interest.

Appearances are important. When it appears that elected officials obtain perks like trips paid for by the very interests seeking to influence them, the public can reasonably have questions about the propriety of those arrangements.

Finish reading this post on

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Money Out / Voters In Conference

Here is a link to a portion of my speech. (A better link to the full discussion to follow shortly). My charge was to detail the history of campaign finance law, in 20 minutes or less.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Welcome to the New California -- Politically Speaking

Hello, readers. Welcome to the "new California." Californians have now lived through a full election cycle with two big election reforms.
First, Californians recently approved redistricting by an independent redistricting commission. That, for the first time in the state's history, gave an independent (or bipartisan, or better yet: multi-partisan) group of citizens the power to draw our state's district lines -- now gone are the days of legislators drawing district lines to ensure their safe re-election.
Second, in 2010 Californians approved open primary, top-two elections. That means any voter now can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation. In the general election (which is really more like a run-off election) the top-two vote-getters competed (one good example: two congressional Republican candidates faced off in a traditionally blue district of San Bernardino County. Learn more here).
Shortly after the election the Public Policy Institute of California crunched the numbers and published a report which sheds some light on the effect of those electoral reforms.
One prediction came true: On the average, elections were more competitive. Those making this prediction (myself included) hardly went out on a limb. In 2001, California legislators drew district lines, in large part, to ensure their safe re-election. Once an independent redistricting commission took over and ignored incumbency protection concerns and instead drew lines to do things like maintain communities of interest, it a virtual sure thing that at least some races would become more competitive.
Similarly, under our old system, because of registration numbers, the winner of a primary election was all but assured success in the general election. Put another way, there were a good number of districts, which were either so heavily Democratic or Republican, that the majority party's primary winner did not need to wage much of a battle in the general election. The top-two election changed that, and we saw competitive races between members of the same party in a number of districts.
We may want to promote more competition in our elections for a number of reasons, but with increased competition comes increased cost. Anyone who lives in a competitive district no doubt heard their share of radio advertisements and received a plethora of campaign mailers. Those campaign advertisements, and others, cost money.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Redistricting, SuperPacs had large influence on election in California

Quoted in this one in the Daily News.

Here is an excerpt:

"The redistricting (process) favored Democrats," said Jessica Levinson, associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School.

But it also resulted in "costly and competitive races," she added.
But California may quickly lose many of its veteran members if other states don't follow suit, and also do away with politically-charged line drawing.

"That's the danger," Levinson. "Unless every state does redistricting with an independent commission, California risks losing its senior members."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Calif. proposition results mixed, liberal or not

Quoted in this one in the SF Chronicle.

Here is an excerpt:

While Californians were approving higher taxes to fund schools and state programs, they were also voting to maintain the status quo by rejecting two ideologically charged initiatives, a liberal measure to repeal the death penalty and a conservative attempt to enfeeble labor unions politically.

One message is that "public opinion on the issues takes a long time to change," said Jessica Levinson, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. She said voters were presented with a different question on three strikes - whether to scale it back while retaining the core of the law - than the up-or-down decision they faced on the death penalty.

In general, said Levinson, the Loyola associate professor, "money spent against ballot measures is much more effective than money spent in favor of them."

Controversy Brewing in Huntington Park Over Water District, City Attorney

Here is a link to my appearance on SoCal Connected. 

Here are a few excerpts:

Gonzales: But soon the chorus of jeers turned towards this man, the city attorney, Francisco Leal.
Gonzales: Francisco Leal has made millions as an attorney for Huntington Park and other southeast L.A. cities. He's moved from town to town for years, often serving as lobbyist and a contract city attorney. And sometimes, controversy followed him. In 2005, he was terminated from his job as lobbyist and city attorney of Commerce. He settled with the city and agreed to pay $70,000. Questions about his firm have been raised in places like Lynwood and Alhambra, but not in Huntington Park. Since 2000, the city has paid Leal’s various firms over $4 million to be a lobbyist, the city attorney, and legal counsel for the city's redevelopment department.
Levinson: So we have one person who is simultaneously a consultant, which is an undefined grey term in this situation, a lobbyist that seems to look like a consultant, and an attorney. And it’s just not only the same person wearing all these hats, but wearing them for various parties that are all involved in the same litigations. There are too many relationships going on here.
Levinson: Lawyers put things in writing all the time, this is kind of our bread and butter. Not all of what we do is just a handshake or a wink and a nod, particularly when it comes to ethical duties, when it comes to duties of loyalty, when it comes to confidential information.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

High Court Issues Rare Weekend Order Siding With State Election Commission Over Donor Disclosure

Quoted in this article in the Daily Recorder. 

Here is an excerpt:

FPPC Chair Ann Ravel called the donation "the largest contribution ever disclosed as campaign money laundering in California history."


"This is the new world of dark money and shell nonprofits," said Jessica Levinson, an associate clinical professor and election law expert at Loyola Law School. "This will be a problem that comes up again." 

State high court supports disclosure after whirlwind weekend of activity

Quoted in today's Daily Journal. 

Here is an excerpt:

The state Supreme Court justices needed less than 20 minutes to decide, unanimously, to compel an Arizona group to identify the source of its $11 million donation to a California campaign fund.

The decision came via teleconference at around 2:20 p.m. on Sunday, according to a Supreme Court source with knowledge of the proceedings, and followed a whirlwind of activity by the court over the weekend. That included an all-nighter by one staff attorney who drafted alternative orders the court could issue depending on what the justices decided.


"This is just the beginning in terms of disclosure for the public," said Jessica Levinson, an elections law expert at Loyola Law School. "It's also just the beginning in terms of lawsuits and legislation."

Voters in Los Angeles Go to the Polls

Looking forward to being on KNX1070 to discuss the election today at 7:20.

Political contributions more difficult to trace after key U.S. Supreme Court decisions

Quoted in this piece in the Sac Bee about campaign disclosure. 

Here is an excerpt:

"I think we're going to increasingly see this kind of shell game of nonprofits trying to influence ballot initiatives," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School ...
"But I also think we're going to see much more legislation trying to promote disclosure and transparency," Levinson added. "And there will be more court cases."

Read more here:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Print Email Font Resize South Bay Assembly race between Craig Huey, Al Muratsuchi is most costly in California

Quoted in this article in the Daily Breeze.

"No one wants to waste money," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies money in politics. "They are only going to spend it if they think it's going to affect the race. They are only going to do that in competitive races where it makes a difference."

Contributions to candidates aren't the only funds flowing into the race. Muratsuchi has been helped by so-called independent expenditures - outside groups that advocate for one candidate but are not officially tied to any campaign. A group called Californians for Fiscal Accountability, Dentists, Physicians has spent more than $440,000 in campaign advertising against Huey, records show. The group can spend what it wants so long as it does not coordinate its actions with the Muratsuchi campaign.

Other groups spending on behalf of Muratsuchi included the Asian American Small Business PAC ($11,623) and the CA Statewide Law Enforcement Association IE Committee ($10,089), records show.

No outside groups have spent on Huey's behalf, according to campaign records.

"Basically, these are groups who have made what is in many cases a business judgment that they are willing to spend 100 or 200 thousand or a million dollars, if they think electing their preferred their candidate will get them a million and one," Levinson said.