How often does your legislator vote with powerful interest groups in Sacramento?

With the help of our partners at Digital Democracy, we’ve created a unique dataset to help illustrate how the policymaking process works, looking at the relationships between legislators, lobbying groups, money and votes. We call it the “Alignment Score.” We basically calculate how often a state lawmaker votes like an interest group would want them to (here’s an FAQ for the methodology) .

We’ve combined those scores with campaign contribution records from the National Institute on Money in State Politics for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.  Together, the data allows us to explore questions like: Do legislators vote for the bills of groups that give them money? Answer: Yes, but not always.

Still, these scores provide an illuminating look at which lawmakers are most cozy with particular interest groups and which lawmakers buck the trend. When that’s combined with campaign finance data, an interesting story emerges about what happens when money and the power of interest groups is applied to politicians and the laws they write.

The data also point to many questions, such as why did a legislator vote against a big supporter? Or why did an interest group not give money to a key leader on their issue? We invite you to explore the data and share your questions with us.

We’ll be updating these scores as the legislative session progresses, so be sure to check back frequently. Here are some of the takeaways we’ve learned so far:

  • The California Teachers Association: Every state lawmaker knows the California Teachers Association (CTA)  is a force to be reckoned with in Sacramento. Democratic Assemblymember Tony Thurmond of Richmond, who is running for the state’s top elected school post next year, has voted just three times against the CTA in three years in office. Over the same time period, Thurmond received $33,000 in campaign contributions from CTA, as much as any other legislator. While the CTA is generous with its financial support for Democrats, the data also raises a question about why they shunned one important legislator: Democratic Senator Ben Allen of Redondo Beach, chair of the Senate Education Committee. Still, Allen votes nearly 90 percent of the time with the group.
  •  The California Chamber of Commerce: The Chamber, which represents businesses interests across the state, is one of the largest sources of campaign dollars for both sides of the aisle. But financial support isn’t always the reason legislators vote with interest groups like the chamber. Moderate Democrats may align with them because of politics in their home districts. Among the Democrats most aligned with the chamber is business-friendly Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who has voted with the group over 50 percent of the time. In 2016, the chamber donated to Quirk-Silva’s Republican opponent.
  •  Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda):  Sen. Glazer is known in the Capitol as a moderate who often breaks with his party. The data proves the point. Out of all Senate Democrats voting on a similar number of bills, Glazer was the least likely to vote with public employees (18 percentage points lower than similar Democrats), teachers (18 points lower), or AFL-CIO related unions (23 points lower). Glazer, who has made outlawing public transit worker strikes a pillar of his campaigns, did not receive any campaign contributions from the three labor unions we examined.
  •  Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres): Looking for a centrist on the Republican side? It’s Sen. Cannella, who made headlines this summer as the lone GOP supporter of a road repair bill that raised the state gas tax. But that was hardly the first time Cannella voted with Democrats. Cannella was closer to the average Democratic senator’s alignment score than to his Republican colleagues’ for six of the interest groups we tracked, including a major public employees union. Cannella voted only 50 percent of the time with the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association–his Republican colleagues on average voted more than 80 percent of the time with the group.
  •  Democrats: Democrats tend to stick together in their voting more than Republicans, especially when it comes to interest groups advocating for social safety net supports. Forty-four of 82 Democratic legislators voted at least 95 percent of the time with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which lobbies for expanding programs like food stamps and welfare. The special interest that caused the most disparate voting activity for Democrats–the California Association of District Attorneys.
  •  Republicans: Republican alignment with the Sierra Club, which advocates for a variety of environmental causes, varied considerably between legislators. Moderates like Assemblymembers Catherine Baker of San Ramon and Brian Maienschein of San Diego voted with the Sierra Club more than 60 percent of the time, while two Republican members of the Senate cast less than 1 in 10 votes with the group.

What You Need to Know About the Alignment Scores

What is it?

The alignment score is a unique dataset to help illustrate how the policymaking process works—looking at the relationships between legislators, lobbying groups, money and votes.

How do you do it?

To build the dataset, CALmatters partnered with the nonprofit government transparency group Digital Democracy, identifying 20 powerful advocacy groups from all sides of the political spectrum with significant influence in the state Capitol. They’ve logged every time the interest groups take a “yes” or “no” position on a bill, either in the written record of bill analyses or from video testimony, over the past three years. Then we looked at how state lawmakers voted on that bill and calculated scores for each legislator . So if you see a lawmaker with a score of 80 percent with the ACLU, it means that lawmaker voted roughly 80 percent of the time the way the American Civil Liberties Union would want them to (here’s more on the methodology).

We’ve combined those scores with campaign contribution records from the National Institute for Money in State Politics for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. Together, the data allows us to explore questions like: Do legislators vote for bills advocated by groups that give them money? Answer: Yes, but not always. (We’ll be adding the 2018 contributions shortly).

What are the flaws in this beautiful thing?

No, these alignment scores aren’t perfect measures of interest group influence. Unless a bill passes through both houses of the Legislature, not every legislator will necessarily vote on the same bill. And even then, bills can be amended between votes. Legislators also can use procedural maneuvers to bury bills without votes. And while we did our best to log as many interest group positions on bills as possible, there’s always a possibility we’ll miss some. (If you see something odd, email us.)

How do you treat “abstensions”?

When a legislator does not vote on a bill an interest group takes a position on, we do not include that as a vote for or against a bill (you can play with other methodology options and see how they affect the scores here). If a legislator switches position on a bill—let’s say votes once in committee with an interest group, and once on the floor against it—it is counted as one “aligned” vote and one vote against the interest group.

How should I interpret that “+/- from Similar Legislator” thing?

We define “similar legislators” as legislators within the same chamber and party that have roughly the same tenure in that chamber. We then take the unweighted average of alignment scores for those legislators to create a single “similar legislator” score. So, a Democratic senator who has been in office since 2014 will be compared to other Democratic senators who have been in office since 2014, but not to Democratic assembly members or Democratic senators first elected in 2016.

Why do we do this? Because different chambers vote on different bills, and because the vote tallies include 2015, 2016 and 2017 bills. It’s our crude way of identifying which legislators really buck their party when it comes to certain interest groups. If a legislator is +10% from a similar lawmaker, that means he or she is 10 percentage points more likely to vote with an interest group than similar lawmakers.