When the California Legislature reconvenes this week for its final month of work for the year, its members will likely do what they believe is in their constituents’ best interests.
And yet, Californians have less representation than citizens of states such as Georgia and Minnesota. A single state senator in Sacramento represents roughly 988,000 people — more than the populations of six states. Each Assembly member now represents nearly half a million people, about 45 times more Californians than each lawmaker represented in the years following the historic Gold Rush.
In short, California’s representative democracy is a far cry from the days when politicians could easily connect with their constituents.
“That whole concept has gotten totally lost in California,” said Mark Paul, a journalist and historian who co-wrote a book on improving the Golden State’s system of governance.
The size of the Legislature — 40 members in the Senate, 80 in the Assembly — has remained unchanged since 1879. Meantime, the state they represent is now the world’s sixth-largest economy. California’s legislative process routinely generates more than 2,000 proposed laws a year and oversees a $183.2-billion state budget.
Lawmakers have more responsibility, and yet probably less contact with their constituents.
Any change in the size of the Legislature would have to be blessed by voters at the ballot box. And the sales pitch wouldn’t be easy, given voters aren’t likely to love the thought of hiring more politicians.
But it’s not a given that operating costs of the Legislature — now about $300 million a year — would have to go up. Paul believes the cost of more lawmakers might be offset by fewer staffers, who’ve become especially powerful since legislative term limits were created in 1990.
So, how many legislators? How about 12,000? That’s the goal of John Cox, a Rancho Santa Fe businessman and Republican candidate for governor. Since 2012, he’s been pitching a plan to revamp the Legislature by dividing each existing legislative district into 100 separate “neighborhood” districts. These small communities would each elect a representative who would attend a district meeting where one of them would be chosen to serve in Sacramento.
Cox has argued that neighborhood representatives would run campaigns driven by local issues and not money from interest groups. The complex plan has failed to qualify for the ballot in years past, but Cox is trying again for next fall’s statewide election.
In their 2010 book, Paul and co-author Joe Mathews made the case for a different fix: a unicameral Legislature — one house instead of two chambers — and districts that each elect more than just one legislator.
They suggested California’s existing 120 lawmakers could be redistributed into multimember districts. Five people would be elected in each of 16 new Assembly districts and eight Senate districts, and the winners would be chosen based on the proportion of votes they received on election day. In theory, any party’s candidate who could get 20% of the vote in a district would win one of its five seats.
That could dilute a single party’s dominance in places such as the Bay Area or the Inland Empire. Might a libertarian or socially liberal Republican win a seat representing part of Silicon Valley? “You would end up, I think, with less polarization,” Paul said.
But the idea of adding or reapportioning seats in the California Legislature has never quite caught on with self-styled reformers. Far more sizzle has been generated by talk of returning to the system that existed before 1966, when being a legislator was a part-time job. The question might be whether Californians can get more out of their government by curbing the work of its elected officials or instead by sending in some reinforcements.