When I lived in Iowa, I was an average citizen, and, one day, I had a question for the governor’s office for an article I was writing for a small newsletter. I called the Capitol number and was transferred to an aide, who responded with something to this effect: “Why don’t you come and ask the governor yourself? Are you free next Monday at 11:30?”
When I got there at 11:30, the governor was waiting and gave me a half-hour of his time.
Getting an audience with Gov. Jerry Brown – or any other recent California governor – would be nearly impossible for an average citizen, and, indeed, it is tough enough to get such access even for someone writing for a major newspaper. The chief executive of a state with 39 million people – especially a state wrestling with a $26.6 billion budget deficit – usually won’t have time for Molly from Modesto, even if the governor of a state with 3 million people might occasionally be able to meet with Steve from Des Moines.
But while it’s unrealistic to expect average voters to get a visit with their governor, they should have a chance to meet with their state representative. Unfortunately, California’s residents have only a slim chance of meeting with their Assembly members, the ones who are supposed to be the people’s advocates.
Iowans, for instance, are represented by 103 members of the House of Representatives, whereas Californians are represented by 80 members of the Assembly. Simple math: There’s one representative for every 29,151 Iowans (using 2008 data) and one Assembly member for every 459,458 Californians (now 483,000). There’s an elected representative in New Hampshire’s house for every 3,290 Granite State residents, the lowest ratio of such representation in the nation.
I gave a talk last weekend at the state Libertarian Party Convention at Lake Tahoe. I spoke about the failure of California Republicans and focused on the party’s failure to end redevelopment agencies. Activist Michael Warnken approached me afterward and handed me the above data. He said it made his point that the continuation of redevelopment, which Gov. Brown wants to end, is a “representation problem.”
To Warnken, most of California’s ills are the result of an insufficient number of representatives. The fewer the representatives, the less likely they are to be held accountable by local voters, and the easier they are to be controlled by well-financed interest groups. He argued that an Assembly that was closer to the people would have been less likely, when voting on ending redevelopment agencies, to side with developers who routinely abuse property rights.
Warnken’s resolution calling for increasing the number of legislative districts and representatives passed overwhelmingly at the convention Sunday.
“You name the problem,” he said. “This is the solution.”
I’m rarely swayed by easy fixes to complex problems, but Warnken’s idea of expanding representation for California offers something refreshing and thoughtful – an idea worth mulling over by reform-minded Californians of all political stripes.
Consider that Los Angeles County, with its nearly 10 million residents, has five county supervisors. Each one represents roughly 2 million people. It’s absurd, really. In Orange County and San Diego County, each supervisor represents about 600,000 residents. Is it any wonder that interest groups have an inordinate amount of sway?
Increasing representation would reduce the power of special interests. These groups like smaller numbers of representatives, because their money plays the biggest role. Citizen groups have a tough time influencing such elections. And then the supervisors, or Assembly members or state senators are far more beholden to the big-money players. They don’t need to listen to average voters, not that the average voter has any realistic chance of engaging the politician. With fewer reps there’s so much to govern, so unaccountable bureaucratic officials end up making more decisions.
Expanding representation reduces the power of money. Additional seats mean an easier chance for voters to kick the bums out. Using Warnken’s data – New Hampshire had a 34.5 percent turnover rate in its 2008 statehouse races, meaning that more than one of three incumbents lost their seats. In California, that number was zero, and it has rarely been above 2.5 percent.
Realistically, the redistricting reform that passed will not change things very much. Increasing the number of representatives also creates better opportunities for third parties, which bring a broader range of ideas and attitudes into the Capitol.
Sure, increasing representation will result in having more politicians, but nothing says that they need to be granted bigger staffs and budgets. By diluting the power of politicians, we would likely see an increase in citizen-legislators driven by ideas rather than paychecks, perks and power. Reformers who are upset by the myriad abuses in California’s overused initiative process, might want to consider the representation alternative. Californians take everything to the ballot box because they have such little opportunity to fix things through the Legislature. Fixing the Legislature would fix the initiative situation.
Every day I get emails and phone calls from Californians dismayed by the state’s structural budget deficits, its enormous unfunded retirement liabilities, the declining quality of public services, a struggling economy strangled by a punitive regulatory regime, and by the political influence of interest groups. Most of the “fixes” they offer have some modicum of merit, but never get to the heart of the problem. But the idea of expanding representation in the Legislature and elsewhere – although only a thought experiment at this stage – to me seems brilliant.
Unlike the reforms proposed by modern-day good-government types – redistricting, open primaries, constitutional conventions, elimination of two-thirds vote requirements, a part-time Legislature – it’s not designed to yield specific political results, in the way that the above-mentioned reformers try to change election systems to, say, elect more “moderates” like them. Californians still would have more liberals than conservatives, but those representatives would be more independent and responsive to the average citizen.
This idea won’t fix everything, but it’s the most promising idea I’ve heard in a long time.