Best Methods for Representing CaliforniaThe Problem
California’s representative government is plagued by an unprecedented number of noncompetitive legislative elections. The Legislature is highly partisan because over 90% of legislative districts strongly favor one political party over the other. California’s legislative debate does not reflect the diversity of views in its population. Incumbents are not accountable to voters and act without fear of losing re-election. A declining number of moderate legislators cannot perform their historic bridge-building role to shape a bipartisan consensus around needed policies. Not surprisingly, California’s voter turnout is one of the lowest in the nation and near the lowest in the state’s history.
The Redistricting Dilemma
The goal of political reform is: 1) to foster more competitive elections that will make lawmakers more accountable to voters and less partisan; and 2) to make the Legislature more representative of California’s political, ethnic and other diversities. In the past, states have attempted to increase competition with independent redistricting commissions using nonpolitical criteria. But in recent years, as Democratic and Republican voters have become increasingly segregated into regional strongholds, such "public interest" redistricting efforts in other states have proven less effective. For example
In Arizona, which uses an independent commission, last year all eight Congressional incumbents won re-election with an average margin of victory of 34%. In the state Senate, none of the 30 seats were competitive; in fact, more than half of the seats were uncontested by one of the two major parties (even though Arizona has public financing of elections, which should encourage more candidates).
In Iowa, the nation’s "poster child" for independent redistricting commissions, all U.S. House incumbents won reelection last year and the average margin of victory was a landslide of 18%. The closest race was a 10 point victory margin. In the state legislature, 85% of House elections also were non-competitive, with the average margin of victory a whopping 47%.
In Washington state, only one of the nine Congressional races was close last year and the average margin of victory for all races was 28%. In the legislature, many races were uncontested.
The reason for this ineffectiveness is related to the shift in partisan demographics over the last 10 years. In states like California and Washington, liberal voters/Democrats dominate the coastal areas and cities, while conservative voters/Republicans dominate the interior areas. In California, the only way to make districts more competitive would be to use the Democratic urban areas as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the districts as narrow spokes radiating outward from the urban hub into the more Republican interior. Some districts would be little more than narrow east-west bands. These districts would be more competitive, but they would look odd and would mix urban, suburban and rural “communities of interest.” Most likely they would violate the federal Voting Rights Act, which helps minority communities elect their chosen representative.
The Solution: Real Democracy for California
There is another type of redistricting plan -- known as proportional voting -- that holds great promise for California. This alternative redistricting plan achieves the democratic goals of:
Increased competition among candidates and more accountability for lawmakers.
Reduced partisanship by electing more centrists, increased opportunities for independent candidates.
Ending political balkanization by electing urban Republicans and rural Democrats.
Compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, allowing racial minorities to win fair representation in competitive elections, without having to gerrymander the districts.
Eliminating gerrymanders by using multi-seat districts where the exact location of the district lines is much less important.
Increased voter participation by creating dynamic campaigns offering voters clear choices; by encouraging candidates and parties to expand their get-out-the-vote activities and by discouraging negative campaigns.
This plan employs an electoral method like the one signed into law for Amarillo, Tex. by former Gov. George W. Bush, and also used in places like Peoria, Ill.; Cambridge, Mass.; Hartford, Conn. and dozens of other local jurisdictions. These proportional methods are designed to win the best representation possible for diverse or divided populations. Proportional voting has been used for decades in Ireland and Australia; it was used for 110 years until 1980 to elect the Illinois state legislature, and was adopted in South Africa after apartheid and in Afghanistan and Iraq for recent elections.
Proposed Design for California
There are many ways to design a system using “proportional voting” methods. Following is a proposal for California that involves three voting design principles:
Multiple-seat districts: Each district includes several legislative seats, rather than one seat per district. For example, five single-seat districts would be combined into one “super district” with five seats (the overall number of legislative seats does not increase).
Ranked-choice voting: A voter casts their votes in order of preference, ranking their selections for first, second and third choices and so on.
Proportional counting: Votes are tabulated based on a proportional method, which establishes a victory threshold based on the number of contested seats. In a five seat district, for example, any candidate winning one-sixth (approximately 17%) of the vote would win one seat.
Plan for California’s U.S. House seats: The following web site shows how such a "super district" plan will work for California’s U.S. House districts, www.fairvote.org/pr/super/2004/california.htm. This model uses existing congressional districts to create five-seat districts. It turns California's 53 U.S. House districts into 11 multi-seat districts (10 districts with five seats each, one district with three seats, total of 53 seats). With a proportional voting method, any candidate who wins 17% of the vote will win one of the seats (except in the three-seat district, a candidate will need 25% of the vote to win one seat). This redistricting plan yields breakdowns by partisan and racial demographics for these super districts that show why this method is so well-suited for California.
This redistricting plan for the 53 congressional seats likely would elect 28 Democrats and 17 Republicans with eight "swing seats" that could be won by either party. Every seat would be earned in a competitive election. Latinos would be well-positioned to win nine seats, a 33% increase. Compare that to the status quo -- zero swing seats, six Latinos, 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans who win by huge landslide margins -- no competition whatsoever. In the last election, Democrats won only 53% of the statewide vote, but won 62% of the seats in the Congressional delegation.
The proposed voting plan also creates a congressional delegation that better reflects the state’s political and geographic balance. For example, in District C, an urban five-seat district located in western Los Angeles that currently elects five Democrats to all five of those seats, a Republican candidate would win one seat. District F, a rural five-seat district located around Palm Springs, which currently elects four Republicans and one Democrat, likely would elect two Republicans and two Democrats, with one swing seat that leans Republican.
Proposal for multi-seat districts in the State Legislature
Assembly: Using the existing 80 Assembly districts, we would group them into 16 super districts with 5 seats each. With a proportional voting method, a candidate would win one of the five seats with 17% of the vote. This would create approximately 12 swing seats up for grabs by either party, as well as increased competition and bipartisan representation throughout the state. Under the status quo, 95% of Assembly races are decided by noncompetitive 10-point margins or more, only two out of 80 seats were tight/swing races, and representation is polarized into regional partisan strongholds.
State Senate: Using the existing 40 Senate districts, we would group them into 8 super districts with 5 seats each (with the 16 Assembly super districts nested inside the Senate districts). With a proportional voting method, any candidate with 17% of the vote would win one of five seats. This also would create approximately 6 swing seats, as well as increased competition and bipartisan representation all over the state. The status quo shows 90% of Senate races in 2004 were won by huge landslides (20 point victory margins), one race was tight (less than five point victory margin) with regionally polarized representation.
Ranked choice voting
The proposed method also would allow voters to rank their candidates, first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. With this "ranked ballot," if no candidate reaches the threshold for victory, the last-place candidate is dropped and those votes are distributed to the second-choice candidates. Ranked ballots allow voters to not worry about wasting their vote on spoiler candidates
The most common criticism of such multi-seat and ranked-choice voting methods is the seeming complexity for voters. But experience from many elections in the U.S. and around the world shows that voters understand their simple duty: to rank their ballots that are counted to achieve fair representation. San Francisco used a ranked ballot method for the first time in November 2004, and an exit poll conducted by San Francisco State University revealed that 87% of voters reported that they understood the system despite only three months of community education. As many observers have pointed out, the rules for professional football or baseball are far more complicated than this voting method, yet millions of Americans master those. This voting method is not so much complicated as it is new and different. But with the proper amount of education, California could transition to the new method.
The ranked ballots also provide strong incentives for positive campaigns and less mudslinging, because winning candidates may need to build coalitions by attracting the second or third-choice votes from the supporters of their opponents. In fact, in San Francisco's ranked ballot elections, a New York Times article was headlined: "New Runoff System in San Francisco Has the Rival Candidates Cooperating."
To find out more about how these proportional voting ballots are counted, visit the short movie at this web site, http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/flash/bc-stv-full.