Partisanship and Electoral Reform: Change in Congressional Cohesion, 1877-1932 by

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Partisanship and Electoral Reform:

Change in Congressional Cohesion, 1877-1932


Rick K. Wilson

Rice University

National Science Foundation

Thanks are due to Brian Posler and Allison Rinden, both of whom did some of the grunt work associated with assembling the data used in this paper. The National Science Foundation is not reponsible for any of the conclusions reached in this research. Paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Associaton, Washington, D.C., August 28-31, 1997.


Explanations for the decline of partisanship in the early part of the 20th century are at odds. The received wisdom holds that a set of electoral reforms led Congressmen to break their partisan ties, engaging in more familiar modes of personalistic behavior. This view has recently been challenged noting that the bulk of the reforms passed in the Populist and Progressive periods eliminated factional strife within parties and led to increased partisanship. This paper looks at a wide variety of reforms introduced in a 40 year period. While a set of early ballot reforms did result in increased levels of state delegation partisanship, subsequent reforms, combined with the passage of time, undermined partisan strength in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The ebb and flow of party strength remains a puzzle for Political Scientists. This is especially true for partisanship within the U.S. Congress. At the outset of the twentieth century levels of party cohesion were extremely high, but steadily declined in the subsequent two decades. Reaching a low water mark in the 1960s, party cohesion resurged in the 1980s, with measurable levels of party voting approaching that observed in the heyday of "boss rule." These swings in Congress have been well documented (Brady, Cooper and Hurley, 1979; Hurley and Wilson, 1989; Patterson and Caldeira, 1988). While the resurgence in the 1980s has been explained by many (in particular, see Rohde, 1992), our explanations remain incomplete.

Key to understanding partisan strength in the U.S. Congress is explaining the precipitous decline of partisanship at the turn of this century. Numerous explanations have been offered, and one which has gained widespread currency points to fundamental changes in electoral rules. In particular, ballot reform rules that were adopted to overcome local party factionalism in the 1890's and Progressive reforms designed to both expand and constrict electoral participation, were thought to undermine partisan linkages between the electorate and those holding office. In turn, it is argued that the electoral linkage was transformed such that office holders became more closely tied to their constituents. The net effect was a slow erosion of party controls over the behavior of office holders.

This paper first details the current explanations for partisan decline around the turn of the 20th century. While there is a standard story focused on the role of rules, recently this view has been challenged (Reynolds, 1995, 1997). In the second section several hypotheses are offered that are derived from these competing approaches. The third section details a set of reforms that dominated the political landscape during the period 1876 to 1932. Finally, a set of models estimate the impact of these reforms on levels of partisanship among Congressional state delegations throughout this period.
Explanations for Partisan Decline in the "Golden Age of Party”

The dominant explanation for the decline of partisanship at the turn of the twentieth century focuses on changes in the electoral rules pressed by Populists and Progressives.1 By changing the "rules of the game" reformers broke down the ability of party bosses to control elections. Weakened partisan bonds meant that elected officials were now more closely attached to constituents, and constituent interests often diverged from purely partisan politics. Consequently elected officials were less likely to toe a party line and observable measures of partisan attachment were likely to decline. A number of studies have shown that changes in electoral rules, whether it be the introduction of the Australian ballot (Rusk, 1970) or the direct primary (Galderisi and Ginsberg, 1986) were correlated with a decline in partisan attachment. Katz and Sala (1996) go so far as to argue that the introduction of the secret ballot transformed the institution of Congress, cementing into place a norm in which re-elected members had a property right claim to committee appointments.

It has been proposed that each change in the rules had an impact on eroding the control of party bosses. As Galderisi and Ginsberg (1986) argue, the direct primary was one of the more interesting of the reforms introduced during the Progressive period.

"The primary can be seen as an antiparty reform on three separate counts. First, by weakening party leaders' capacity to control nominating processes, primary elections undermine the organizational coherence of established parties. Second, primaries tend to direct the attention of voters and political activists toward the nominating contests of the party most likely to win the general election, and away from the interparty race. ... Last, and most interesting, primary elections have the effect of inhibiting the formation of new parties." (p. 116)

The argument for the latter point is that contested primaries allow dissidents to oppose within established parties rather than challenge from the outside. Consequently, attention turns away from building a new third party in order to opt to work from within.

The principal evidence offered for the impact of changing electoral rules has focused on the Australian ballot. The argument typically offered holds that the secret ballot directly removed the ability of partisan bosses to control votes. Prior to the introduction of the secret ballot, parties (or even splinter groups) printed their own ballots which were handed to voters and which could be dropped into a ballot box. Because only one such voting slip could be dropped into the ballot box, this required that someone watch to prevent more than one vote being cast. Obviously, because ballots were distinctive, this also allowed partisan observers to monitor who was for and against them. The Australian ballot, which required that the state or local government print a standard ballot and required voters to mark their ballot, ensured secrecy when casting the ballot and removed partisan monitoring. If a voter was "bought" it was no longer clear whether he stayed that way when casting his vote.

Recently this view has been challenged. Reynolds (1995) points out that ballot reforms were aimed at curbing abuses created by urban political machines. Rather than behaving as tightly controlled national political parties these local machines were fractionated and factional. Reynolds' claim is that the reformist movements were led by state party leaders who viewed these reforms as an opportunity to retrench the two major parties in the political process. By requiring a centralized, standardized ballot, the major parties could squeeze out third party competition and they could curtail factions within their own party. Indeed, Reynolds provides very strong evidence that the introduction of the Australian ballot and mechanisms for voting via party list led to increased cohesion within the parties -- particularly at the national level (see Reynolds, 1997).

Reynolds may well be correct in arguing that the net effect of populist (and later progressive) reforms strengthened national political parties, rather than undermined them. However, the Australian ballot was only one of many reforms pursued by reformers. As Burnham (1970), among many others, notes the reform movements that gained steam in the cities in the 1890s pressed for a wholesale transformation of the American electoral system. At least two general sets of reforms were sought. The first tried to undermine urban political machines by implementing the Australian Ballot, direct primaries and at-large, non-partisan elections. The net effect of these major reforms (and a host of minor experiments) was, in Burnham's mind, to erode party functions. In turn, as Rusk (1970) and others claim, this weakened the grip of Congressional partisans in both Chambers.

The second set of reforms, rather than breaking down control by party elites, turned to curbing electoral abuses by citizens. These reforms included allowing women's suffrage, thereby enfranchising a group that was expected to have a leavening effect on the political process, the introduction of poll taxes and other barriers to voting, effectively disenfranchising a different group and lessening competition in the South, and finally by requiring personal registration of voters to limit the amount of fraud due to individuals casting multiple ballots.

Burnham is quite deliberate in his conclusions about the consequences of these reforms. As he argues, it was not one or the other of these reforms that lead to the decline of partisan attachment at the outset of the 20th century. Instead, he notes

"...most if not all of these fundamental changes in the 'rule of the game' were in effect devices of political establishment and control, with strongly conservative latent consequences if not overt justifications, and with an overwhelmingly antipartisan bias." (p. 74).

Burnham is only echoing the arguments offered by many Progressives at the turn of this century. For example, Ernst Mayer, in a self-published treatise advocating the primary system as a means for wresting control from partisan bosses, argued

"Closely related to the Australian ballot and the primary election reforms safeguarding our nominations and elections, is that which aims to punish the corrupt use of money and other forms of bribery in securing either nominations or elections to office. These reforms are all complementary. Neither one is complete in itself, and all cooperate for a common end, -- the establishment of more perfect institutions for the selection of our public service." (1902, p. 444).

Changing a single rule of the electoral game was not regarded as sufficient. Instead, a galaxy of electoral reforms were necessary in order to return to political order (of course, see Wiebe, 1967 for a trenchant analysis as to whose order was being restored).

Regardless of the reformist claims, perhaps there is truth in the matter that an array of reforms, which were implemented at different times, had an impact on voter's partisan attachments and consequently on the attachments of members to party-in-the-Congress. Certainly Rusk and Stucker (1978) provide strong evidence for at least the first part of this equation in southern states. They analyze the confluence of a large number of electoral reforms and links their impact to Congressional state delegations. Rather than resting with Reynold's conclusions about the impact of the Australian ballot on cohesion among partisans in Congress, I press as to whether the change in the ballot, coupled with a myriad of other reforms, had an impact on shifting levels of cohesion in the U.S. Congress.

The principle hypothesis is very straightforward. The cumulative effect of ballot and electoral process reforms was to break down levels of cohesion in state congressional delegations. While several of the ballot reforms in the 1890's may have boosted state party control over the nomination and election of members to the U.S. Congress, over time that control shifted from the party to the individual representatives. With the addition of Progressive reforms that controlled access to the ballot and enhanced the ability of voters to mask their partisan allegiance, representatives increasingly had to tie their fortunes to the voters and were less bound to the dictates of party interests. This meant that where the electoral rules provided new incentives to respond to voters, members of congress did so. All of this occurred at the same time that the tenure for members of congress was increasing.

Hypothesis 1. The net effect of ballot and electoral reforms was a decline in state delegation partisan attachment.

If the hypothesis is incorrect then the reforms should have no independent effect. Instead, the observed shift in aggregate partisan attachment is due to some other combination of variables. Because these reforms were adopted at different times in different states, the effects of different reforms will be negligible.

Hypothesis 2. The short term effects of ballot reforms was to strengthen state delegation partisan attachment.

Hypothesis 2 extends directly from the discussions by Reynolds (1995, 1997). Her arguments and data point out that fundamental changes in the ballot structure meant increased control by state party leaders and eliminated the factionalism that had often been present in parties. However, these reforms, while eliminating factional strife within the party, also planted the seeds for individual candidates to build their own voting coalitions. If similar findings are not uncovered here, then the measures I use can be called into question.

Hypothesis 3. The short and long term effects of Progressive electoral system reforms was to weaken state delegation partisan attachment.

Hypothesis 3 distinguishes between ballot reforms and electoral reforms. The latter aimed to eliminate electoral fraud and to "cleanse" the pool of eligible voters. This in turn decreased the ability of partisan machines to control who was placed on the ballot and led to a steady decline in partisan attachment.

Fortunately, from the standpoint of a social scientist trying to disentangle these different effects, not all reforms were adopt in all states nor were they adopted at the same time. As a consequence, by taking a lengthy time series and tracing when reforms were differentially implemented, it is possible to tease out the impact of these different reforms and address these different hypotheses.

The data used for this analysis cover the period 1876 (when members of the 45th Congress were first elected) to 1932 (when members of the 73rd Congress were elected). Two distinct types of data were used. The first constitute measures of partisanship within the U.S. House of Representatives. These are recovered from recorded votes provided by the ICPSR. The second type of data concerns the electoral rules adopted by each state during this period.

The key dependent variables are derived from measures of party voting in the US Congress. Two types of measures are used in order to tap levels of delegation cohesion. The first is a standard measure that often has been used. The PARTY VOTING measure is based on the percentage of the time that 50 percent of one party voted against 50 percent of the other party.2 As such this measure simultaneously (but imperfectly) captures inter-party conflict as well as the degree to which parties cohere. Usually this measure is reported in the aggregate for the Congress. In this analysis, however, the focus is with state delegations. For each state an average Party Voting score was calculated for each party. The score was derived from the percentage of times individual members voted with their party on party votes. Someone who rarely voted with the party majority when the parties were in conflict would have a low score (a score below 50 was quite rare), while someone always backing the party would have a score approaching 100. Consequently, highly partisan delegations had average scores approaching 100 and weakly partisan delegations had lower scores. Figure 1 shows the overall party voting averages, by party and year, for the House. What is apparent is that the overall rates of party voting are high for both parties. They climb during the 1890s and then begin to decline in the second decade of the 20th century.

A second measure is borrowed from Poole and Rosenthal (1997). PARTY NOMINATE is a measure of partisan distance calculated from the two-dimensional individual-level scores produced by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal from all votes cast in a Congress. Their two dimensions are used to construct a new dimension that yields the best fitting measure of partisanship for the two dominant parties.3 Here too state delegation means, derived from member's scores, are calculated for both parties in each Congress. Because of the way in which the Poole and Rosenthal data are normalized, scores close to zero reflect low partisan attachment -- that is such members tend to be as close to one party as the other in their voting behavior. Scores toward a value of 1.0 are extreme Republicans, while scores tending toward -1.0 are extreme Democrats. Figure 2 plots the overall averages for both parties across time. These data show a similar (and smoother) trend to what was captured in figure 1. In the 1890s partisan allegiance, as recovered through roll call votes, increased. This is clear from the widening distance between the two parties in this period. By the second decade of the 20th century the party averages move toward zero (and one another), indicating that partisanship was in decline.

The independent variables, by and large, are dummy variables that are turned on when particular voting rules were implemented in the state and turned off otherwise. At the same time, in order to assess the long-term impact of the reform, counter variables are included. Prior to implementing a reform the appropriate counter variable was coded as zero. In the first Congress for which the reform was implemented, the counter was assigned a value of one and then was incremented by a value of one for each subsequent Congress. Consequently, the dummy variable can be thought of as the immediate impact of the reform (an intercept effect) while the counter is the long-term impact of the reform (the slope effect).

The first set of variables focused on balloting procedures that sought to lessen the influence of organized political machines. For example, AUSTRALIAN BALLOT is a variable indicating whether or not the secret ballot was adopted by a state. Because these data are organized by Congress and state delegation, the variable is coded as a zero in those years prior to the adoption of the secret ballot and coded as one when the ballot system was implemented in time for elections to that Congress.4 The Australian ballot was implemented under a number of variations by the states. Nonetheless it shared the common feature that balloting would be secret and that the state or local government would print the ballots. Much of the movement for the Australian ballot occurred in the 1890's with most of the states quickly adopting this procedure (see discussions by Rusk, 1970 or Fredman, 1968).

Coupled with the Australian ballot were two additional features of ballot reform. Prior to the introduction of the Australian ballot political parties printed their own slates which served as ballots. This enabled voters to cast their ballot for a straight party ticket. Voting a split ticket usually meant cutting and pasting a new name over a name for a candidate for a particular party. Of course parties and splinter groups within parties often appropriated one another's colors and party symbols such that there was a hodgepodge of ballots. With the introduction of the Australian ballot, fundamental questions were raised as to whether candidates parties could be listed under a PARTY COLUMN and whether STRAIGHT TICKET voting was allowed. The reform movements pressing the Australian ballot viewed many local political parties as corrupt machines and aimed to eliminate all references to party on ballots. While the Australian ballot was adopted quickly in most states, it took some time for states to allow candidates to be listed under a party column. Even when candidates could be listed in such a manner, many states refused to allow straight ticket voting. The coding rules were relatively straightforward. The PARTY COLUMN dummy variable was switched on when the state allowed candidates to be listed under a party name or party emblem. STRAIGHT TICKET was triggered when states allowed a voter to check a single box to vote for the entire party slate.

A final reform aimed at undermining the grip of party bosses over elections involved the routinization and oversight of primary elections. Many reformers in the late 19th century thought party conventions (when they occurred) to be dominated by political machines that were able to ratify their slates without problem (Mayer, 1902). A primary system was thought to be a way of letting rank and file partisans have the opportunity to nominate the “best” candidates. Moreover, when overseen by state government, a primary was viewed as overcoming corrupt election practices. PRIMARY is a dummy variable indicating when a state adopted a state-wide primary election process. It should be noted that, as with many of these reforms, requiring the state as a whole to use primaries often lagged behind requiring large municipalities implement the reform. As was often the case at the turn of the century, many state legislatures pointed to urban machine politics as the chief source of corrupted elections, while ignoring the fact that the same reforms could be more broadly applied.

A second set of reforms aimed at making it more or less difficult for citizens to vote. The poll tax was directed at blocking black electoral participation in the south. Poll taxes were generally introduced at the turn of the 20th century and involved pre-paying a fee in order to cast a ballot. These fees were not exorbitant, usually in the range of $1.50 to $5.00 per year. However, the fee was often waived for whites and the time period during which the poll tax could be paid was often only a few days out of the year. POLL TAX then is a dummy variable indicating when a state implemented poll tax laws. Registration laws had a different aim. While registration requirements were nominally aimed at eliminating individuals from voting more than once, the net effect was to limit access to the polls by the ill-educated working poor. Registration laws required that voters prove they were eligible prior to an election. REGISTRATION is a dummy variable indicating when state-wide voter registration was required.

The final reforms considered expanded the franchise. Many states adopted legislation providing women the right to vote well prior to the adoption of the 19th Amendment. This obviously had the effect of expanding the franchise to a large population. The dummy variable SEX is coded to reflect when women were granted the right to vote. Finally a movement for absentee voting was also pressed in many of the states. While absentee voting had long been extended to soldiers at war, reformers thought this right should be extended to all citizens. ABSENTEE is coded one when a state adopted absentee voting rules extending to all eligible voters.

Several additional control variables are included in the analysis. First, all estimations are performed separately for the two major parties. This aids considerable in interpretation. Second, a dummy variable for SOUTH is included. This variable takes on a value of one for those states that were part of the Confederacy. As many have shown, in this period the South is different and has an impact on estimations. Third I control the extent of turnover in state delegations. RETURN calculates the proportion of members from the same party in a state that returned to Congress. This captures the continuity of members to the delegation and enables me to estimate whether changes in state delegation averages are a function of replacement of members or due to changes by the members themselves. Finally, the size of the delegation is controlled for in some of the estimations. It is likely that the delegation averages are sensitive to the number of members in a delegation -- in states where there is only a single Democrat or Republican and that member turns over, this can yield considerable volatility in the time series.

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