ARNOLD AGONIZES: How the election changed the governor -- and California
Where state's angry voters will turn next

By David Lesher
Published November 13th 2005 in San Francisco Chronicle
Now what? The special election was a referendum on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and all eyes are focused on how he responds to a complete rejection by voters. But an even more important question is, what will voters do next?

They started this venture into uncharted territory with the unprecedented recall of an incumbent governor and the election of a political neophyte who promised to sweep out the status quo. Now, the rejection of the special election suggests the recall was a failed solution.

Voters are still as angry as they were two years ago. Roughly 3 out of 5 agree today with all of the following statements: California is on the "wrong track," bad times are ahead, there is "a lot" of waste in state government, Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are failing at their jobs, the government can rarely be trusted, political contributions have too much influence and "major change" is needed in the state budget.

So now, voters in America's strongest direct democracy will have to decide how to deal with their loss. And as they did in the recall, there are signs that voters continue to think about dramatic solutions that have never seriously been considered.

For example, a poll last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found a dramatic jump in support for public financing of elections. Last year, voters rejected the idea by more than 22 points. But last month, the issue was dead even.

Public financing won a majority of Democrats, a plurality of independents and a 12-point jump among Republicans to 37 percent support. Importantly, it was also backed by a slight majority of likely voters.

The poll certainly corroborates the popular analysis that both Schwarzenegger and his recalled predecessor, Gray Davis, were undone by the essential need in California to raise enormous amounts of money from special interests. And it confirms that voter attitudes are evolving.

In addition to the influence of money, it's also clear that voters are rejecting the partisan stalemate in Sacramento. Both major political parties are hemorrhaging voters while registration for independents and minor parties continues to climb.

Democratic registration today is at 42 percent, its lowest point in 75 years. There are actually about 400,000 fewer Democrats in California today than there were in 1994, even though the state has added more than 1 million registered voters since then. Republican registration is also down from nearly 40 percent in 1990 to less than 35 percent today.

Registration outside of the two major parties has more than doubled since 1990 to nearly 23 percent today. San Francisco, the state's second-most Democratic county, also has the highest independent registration in California at 28 percent.

The response by adult voters is also just a glimpse of the trend since many are unhappy but haven't made the effort to change their party registration. The bleak future of the two major parties is most clear in the response from young voters. Among those under age 23, more than 40 percent are registering outside of the two major parties.

So is California ready for a third party? Last year, voters split nearly 50-50 when the Public Policy Institute asked whether Republicans and Democrats are doing "such a poor job that a third major party is needed." But it may not stay that way very long since independent voters endorsed the statement by nearly 2 to 1.

Next year's election is not likely to help the two major parties improve their standing. The voters' rejection of the special election will probably turn the race for governor into a blame game about which party or which candidate is most responsible for the continuing problems.

But with voter anger still unsatisfied, the issue of reform will continue to be at the forefront of California's political dialogue. And if it's up to voters to make the change themselves, they might look to British Columbia.

Last year, more than 160 British Columbia voters were impaneled for a "Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform" to study how they might improve their malfunctioning democracy. Over 11 months, they heard from experts about voting systems used throughout the world, they held public hearings around the province, and, with remarkable dedication and participation, they deliberated about new ways to govern themselves.

In the end, they recommended a proportional voting system for their province, a model that should also be considered for California. Proportional systems are far better than our existing winner-take-all elections at representing a divided or diverse population. They use multiple seat districts and new counting methods to create an elected body that represents all of the major stripes in the electorate.

In British Columbia, the idea won support of 58 percent support earlier this year, just short of the 60 percent threshold set for passage. Proponents are putting the idea back on an upcoming ballot.

In California, it's a good way to start the next "Year of Reform."

David Lesher is the California program director for New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute based in Sacramento and Washington. Contact us at [email protected]