Searching for the center: A citizens assembly for California?

Something I have been wanting to get around to for a while: There is a proposal soon to go before the California state legislature (ACA 28) to create a citizens assembly to review possible electoral reform for the state. The idea is derived from the recent Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia. A similar institution will begin work in Ontario* this year.

From the Sacramento Bee, December 20, by way of FairVote (emphasis below is mine).

Two California assemblymen known for their efforts at bipartisan cooperation have joined forces on a bill that seeks to fundamentally overhaul the state’s electoral system in a search for its political center.

Under the legislation to be submitted next year by Democrat Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg and Republican Keith Richman of Northridge, a “citizens assembly” would be created to come up with a new electoral system and place it in the form of a constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot.

A draft of the bill doesn’t mention what kind of changes might be proposed. But Canciamilla and Richman said in interviews that they strongly favor such changes as proportional representation, independent redistricting, term-limit modification and campaign finance reform.


The body would be made up of two members from each of the 80 state Assembly districts, selected by a task force of academic experts from a pool of volunteers representing the state’s adult population according to age, gender, race and geography.


“We’re not suggesting an outcome,” Canciamilla said. “We’re trying to focus on electoral reform, and that could be pretty much anything…”


“I think the confluence of gerrymandered districts, short term limits and campaign finance have resulted in legislators being unwilling to do anything other than vote for the agendas of the special interest groups that are going to help them get re-elected or elected to their next office,” Richman said.

So far, not only a good idea, but a good newspaper report about a good idea. But then there is this:

Although the draft legislation does not recommend any specific changes in the electoral system, those involved say they are interested in exploring a proportional voting system along the lines of the parliamentary systems of Europe.

OK, well, it is certainly true that most European countries have parliamentary systems and most also have proportional representation. But the two, as concepts, have nothing to do with each other, and one can exist in a political system without the other. The UK is parliamentary, but uses plurality in single-seat districts, just like California and most US jurisdictions. France is semi-presidential–and the cabinet depends on the parliamentary majority, not on the president–and uses two-round majority in single-seat districts (like many larger local jurisdictions in California). And then there are presidential systems–like the US and all its states–that do not use single-seat district winner-take-all elections like we do, but instead elect their legislators by PR– examples include Costa Rica and most other Latin American democracies.

While I think it would be great if a citizens assembly would also be allowed to at least consider a parliamentary government model for California, let’s not conflate parliamentary systems with proportional systems!

David Lesher of the New America Foundation in Sacramento, also quoted in the Bee, notes:

One of the problems in Sacramento is that the Legislature is too polarized and that there is a great, vast center in California that is not adequately represented. When you think about political reform, it’s how do you create a legislative body that reflects its constituents better than Sacramento does today?

Exactly. And this is how any dicussion of proportional representation in California or elsewhere in the US should be framed. Too often the focus in discussions of PR is on allegedly “foreign” models and the European parliamentary context, and on opening the gates to fringe parties rather than by focusing on the benefits to the great chunk of voters who are not committed to any party, major or minor. Consider each of these in turn.

PR is not foreign. Almost every US voter who has ever voted in a presidential primary has voted in a PR election, as both parties (Democrats in all states and Republicans in most) use PR to allocate convention delegates to presidential candidates (though with very high thresholds, often 15%). Two common PR formulas are known by very “foreign” names (d’Hondt and Ste.-Laguë), but the exact same formulas are also known as Jefferson and Webster in their use, at various times throughout US history, for apportioning seats to states in the House.

PR is not just for parliamentary systems. I already began to address this issue above, but it is worth noting that the claims (which are themselves much over-stated, but that’s a different debate) that PR breeds government “instability” are hardly relevant to the fixed-term executive of the US and California. Now, there is a lot of literature in comaprative politics that claims PR and presidentialism are unworkable, but I find this literature unconvincing.** The compatibility of our executive type with PR is a debate worth having, as any PR system has to be designed with the separate executive in mind (and thus not simnply imported from those foreign contexts) and I would like to have that debate here at F&V and elsewhere. But if the question is instability, defined (albeit not properly) as short-duration cabinets brought down by small parties or shifting coalitions in the legislature, this is not relevant to California or US separation of powers.

PR is not just for the fringe. Too often in debates about PR, the assumption is that the only voters who would benefit from it are those who favor fringe parties and ideas. Obviously, such voters indeed have a stake in PR, for it lowers the effective share of votes needed to obtain legislative representation. But I do not expect any PR system that could ever be adopted in California or elsewhere in the USA to have an effective threshold lower than around 5% (and it might well be higher). If Greens and American Independent and other very small parties are to clear such a threshold, even they would have to moderate their views. In doing so, they would no longer be the fringe parties that go by those labels today, and they would be appealing to voters located much closer to the center than their current “true believer” fringe electorate. That brings me to my last point about the benefits to nonpartisan voters.

PR is good for centrist and nonpartisan voters. The rationale for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed ballot measure to create a panel of judges to re-draw congressional and state-legislative districts was that our current districts are too “safe” for one party or the other and that elminating partisan and bipartisan gerrymandering would elect more moderates from competitive districts. The goal of electing more moderates was also behind the push for the blanket primary (which the US Supreme Court invalidated) and occasional calls for Louisiana-style nonpartisan two-round majority elections (as though Louisiana were a beacon of political reform ideas!). The problem with all these propsals is that they remain within the single-seat district paradigm. And the winners of those districts will still be Republicans or Democrats, and because of the geographic distribution of party supporters, only a handful of districts would become genuinely more competitive and friendly to moderates than current districts under current electoral rules.

Moreover, any supposed moderates who are elected under these various within-the-pardigm “reform” ideas would still go to Sacramento (or Washington) and caucus with the legions of more committed partisan members sharing their party label and who are elected in fully safe districts.*** At a time when the fastest growing choice on the portion of the voter-registration form that asks for party affiliation is “decline to state,” what is needed to represent these moderate voters was best stated by Henry Droop (in continuation of the quote at the top of the left sidebar):

if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.

I have no idea what proposal would emerge from the citizens assembly. But I do believe that citizens, educated about alternative electoral systems, are highly unlikely to believe that the status quo should be retained, or that simple tinkering around the edges would deliver the benefits that the vast “moderate non-partisan section of the electors” wants to see from its government.

My previous posts on proportional representation in the USA can be viewed together at the PR-USA subdomain. Specifically, please see:

What if the USA changed to proportional representation?

Proportional representation–a common misconception

Partisan polarization and the case for PR

And my F&V mission statement (especially the sub-heading “Towards a poitical re-engineering agenda for the USA).

*The Canadian province, not the California city.

**Most of this literature is based on the collapse of democracy in several Latin American countries in the 1960s and 1970s. But there were far greater problems for democracy in those societies than either presidentialism or proportional representation. For one thing, the right wing, often backed by the US, was much more willing to throw its lot in with the military than to accept the difficult compromises of democracy, and the left was far more radical than it is today, dreaming of revolution rather than willing to face the difficult compromises of democracy. Societies like Chile and Brazil were deeply polarized, and PR did not create the polarization, nor would majoritarian electoral systems (with whatever executive type) have kept a lid on it.

*** And there is growing political science evidence that parties’ legislative caucuses tend to select leaders closer to the party mode than to the median. In other words, the moderates lose out to the more committed partisans (who tend to be from safe districts). It thus takes a lot of new moderates to make a major dent in the political position of those who direct the party’s legislative business. And, as already noted above, there is little realistic prospect of a large increase in the number of moderates elected, even with a “fair” redrawing of the map of single-seat districts.


0 thoughts on “Searching for the center: A citizens assembly for California?

  1. Thank you for this highly intelligent discussion of potential reform models. I would fully support a citizens assembly but believe that the only real voter reform that will make any difference is if we start to push some unlikely candidates into offices. I am not only saying this because I am such a candidate, but also because I believe in the power of the consumer. Look what consumers were able to change in regards to fast food and organic food, and without any legislation. The real barrier is overcoming the stigma most voters have that their vote is wasted if they vote for a loser. The reality is that everyone loses when you vote for someone you don’t believe is representative of your political ideals. Thank you very much,
    Eric Mahoney

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