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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: November 2015

10 - The Costs of Party Reform: Two States’ Experiences



Several states have attempted to rein in or eliminate political parties through a series of reforms. This chapter details two such efforts: campaign finance reform in Colorado and cross-filing in California. While these reforms met with mixed success in reining in partisanship, they imposed other costs on the political system that generally worked against reformers’ stated goals.

• Coloradoe's campaign finance reform in 2002, which sharply limited parties’ donations and expenditures, did not curtail partisanship in the state, while it did make campaign contributions much more difficult to trace.

• Cross-filing in California (1913–59) did have the effect of limiting partisanship in the statehouse, but it also created a corrupt environment dominated by lobbyists and business interests.

• Strong party systems, while frustrating, tend to allow for greater accountability in elections.

• Our political system might be better served by seeking to adapt institutions to strong parties, rather than trying to conform parties to existing institutions.

American political discourse is suddenly filled with suggestions for political reform. A vast range of political activists, journalists, and politicians have reacted to increased concerns about party polarization and legislative gridlock in the natione's capital by proposing ideas that would do anything from marginally mitigating partisanship to eliminating parties altogether. Indeed, the very conference that spawned this edited volume began with an address by a university administrator describing polarization as a “tumor” and calling upon scholars to develop the T-cell therapy that would help beat back the disease. More recently, a U.S. Senator called for the national adoption of Californiae's “top-two” primary system to encourage the election of more moderates (Schumer 2014), while the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report calling for, in part, more open primaries and increased participation in those contests (Bipartisan Policy Center 2014). Other reformers call for instant runoff voting, the abolition of the Electoral College, proportional voting, redistricting reform, campaign finance reform, and so forth, all in the name of reducing parties’ influence on our political system.

In an upcoming book (Masket 2016), I examine several reforms enacted during the past century designed to rein in or eliminate parties at the level of an American state. I find that not only do these reforms tend to fail to curb the role of parties in the political system, but they usually inadvertently inflict harm on democracy in the process. This chapter has a similar focus.

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