Corruption in Sacramento is a “few bad apples,” not systemic breakdown, voters say

Los Angeles, California - In the wake of recent allegations against three California state senators for crimes such as bribery, conspiracy and money laundering, California voters say they are concerned about corruption in the state legislature, but younger voters are less likely to be surprised by the allegations, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

The poll, the largest statewide survey of registered voters, sampled 1,511 California voters from May 21-28, 2014, and includes a significant oversample of Latino voters as well as one of the most robust cell phone samples in the state. The survey was conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, and has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.

Altogether 84 percent of registered voters voiced alarm over corruption, with 51 percent “very concerned” and 32 percent “somewhat concerned.” Fourteen percent of Californians reported they were “not concerned” by corruption in the state legislature.

However, Californians also reported that they did not view the entire system in Sacramento as corrupt. When queried about which statement was closer to their own view, 68 percent of voters felt that there are “a few bad apples in Sacramento who are corrupt.” In comparison, 23 percent agreed with the statement “the entire system in Sacramento is corrupt,” and 3 percent identified with the statement “there is no corruption in Sacramento.”

“While a significant number of Californians are concerned about corruption in the state legislature, voters are more likely to blame a select few rather than make a blanket judgment on their elected officials,” said Matt Rodriguez, co-director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, distinguished Unruh Institute fellow and Democratic strategist.

That feeling is steady across party lines: 76 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Decline to State voters felt that there are “a few bad apples” who are corrupt. In comparison, 34 percent of Republicans, 26 percent of Decline to State voters, and 13 percent of Democrats felt that the “entire system” is corrupt.

When asked how they felt about recent allegations of corruption by three state senators in Sacramento, 31 percent of voters said they were “not surprised,” 22 percent reported that they were “angry,” another 22 percent were “disappointed,” and 14 percent were “frustrated.”

Responses, however, differed across age groups. Thirty-five percent of voters under age 50 said they were “not surprised” — with 37 percent of voters age 18-29 weighing in is as “not surprised” — compared with 26 percent of voters over 50.

“Millennials were more likely to say they were ‘not surprised’ about corruption than seniors were,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “Some of that may be general apathy toward politics, but you also have a Millennial generation that has lived their lives with politics defined through the lens of corruption and gridlock. They’ve never really seen anything else so it may be that we’re generating an entire new generation of skepticism and political apathy based on this idea that we’re just not going to be surprised when politics get caught up in bribery, etc.”  

A vast majority of voters were on board with overhauling the California state legislature’s ethics rules. Of the potential policies they were presented with:

  • 90 percent of Californians favored expelling legislators who had been convicted of corruption or other crimes related to their position; 6 percent opposed.
  • 88 percent favored suspending those legislators; 7 percent opposed.
  • 77 percent favored banning legislators from accepting gifts from special interests and lobbyists, and 18 percent opposed.
  • 74 percent favored placing an annual $5,000 limit on travel-related gifts to an elected official from a single source; 18 percent opposed.
  • 67 percent favored reducing the value of gifts legislators can accept from a single source from special interests from about $400 a year (the current limit) to $200 a year; 24 percent opposed.
  • 65 percent favored prohibiting candidates from fundraising during the end of legislative sessions when decisions on many key issues are made, and 23 percent opposed.
  • 63 percent favored requiring candidates to accept campaign contributions only from people in their own district, and 27 percent opposed.
  • 58 percent favored prohibiting candidates from fundraising during the entire legislative session, and 30 percent opposed.

“In terms of reforms, voters look at these measures as an ‘all of the above’ solution,’” said David Kanevsky, research director of Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. “They support everything and intensity is strong. Part of that is because all of these reforms don’t have any impact on the voters themselves. They all put limits on the politicians and interest groups so of course voters are saying yes.”

Californians were queried about the various people and organizations that might wield the most influence over state legislators. Thirty-five percent of voters said that they feel legislators put the interests of special interest groups first; 22 percent said campaign contributors; 17 percent said their own interests come first for legislators; and 11 percent answered the people legislators represent come first.

"While corruption scandals have roiled the Capitol recently, Californians do not believe that the legislature is plagued by a 'culture of corruption,' rather, recent events are the failings of individual legislators,” said Michael Madrid, co-director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, distinguished Unruh Institute fellow and Republican strategist.

“However, Californians are of the strong opinion that the public’s interests are lowest among the concerns of legislators - in fact, they believe that special interests like big corporations and unions are first in the minds of legislators. While not corrupt, Californians do not believe the legislature is working for them," Madrid said.

Additional poll results and methodology are available here.

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