State politics shutting out many millions
By Steven Hill
Published January 28th 2007 in San Francisco Chronicle
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found only 20 percent of November voters believe our state will be a better place to live in 2025; 51 percent say it will be worse. Another poll by the New America Foundation found widespread dissatisfaction with the two major political parties, even Democratic and Republican voters indicating their weariness of voting for the "lesser of two evils."
For the first time in modern California history, a majority of adults are not registered with either of the two major parties and say that California needs another major political party.
Why have Californians lost so much faith in their political leadership?
A separate study by the policy institute suggests one illuminating explanation: There is a widening breach between most of the 35 million people residing in California and the fewer than 9 million who actually vote. Today, the California adult population is approximately 46 percent white, 32 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian and 6 percent black. Yet, 7 in 10 likely voters are white while only 1 in 6 is Latino. A third of California adults are foreign-born, but 9 in 10 who frequently vote are native born.
Frequent voters tend to be 45 and older, have household incomes of $60,000 or more, are homeowners and have college degrees. In contrast, the 12 million nonvoters (7 million of whom are eligible to vote but are unregistered) tend to be younger than 45, are renters, and relatively few have household incomes over $60,000 or hold college degrees.
Voters and nonvoters also have jarringly different attitudes on key political issues, says the policy institute study. From Proposition 13 to raising taxes, to limits on government, to social and education spending, frequent voters are strikingly more conservative than their nonvoting neighbors.
Considering that California often has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation -- in some elections only a little more than one-third of eligible voters participates -- a small group of frequent voters, who are richer, whiter and older than their nonvoting neighbors, form the majority that decides which candidates win and which ballot measures pass.
Mark Baldassare, author of the policy institute report, noted that "only about 15 percent of adult people make the decisions, and that 15 percent doesn't look much like California overall."
In short, our democracy has become a "rumpocracy" -- rule by the few and favored, the lucky 15 percent.
What is glaringly clear across the rumpocratic divide is that two California's have emerged -- one that votes and one that does not. Both sides inhabit the same state and must share the same resources, but only one side is electing political leaders who divide up the pie. It's like watching the gradual separation of two massive tectonic plates, with pressure building along the seismic fault lines, portending difficulties for the future.
Yet if the challenge were simply trying to induce voter turnout, compulsory voting like that used in Australia and Belgium, which legally requires everyone to vote and has produced turnouts above 80 percent, would do the trick. But the problem is more complex.
California (like other states) is plagued by residential patterns in which Democratic and Republican voters have become increasingly segregated into regional partisan strongholds ("red" and "blue" districts). Democratic voters dominate urban and coastal areas, and Republicans dominate rural areas.
A checkerboard of winner-take-all districts renders legislative elections into a charade where 90 percent of seats are won by landslide margins and only a handful of seats change party hands. Many attribute this lack of competition to incumbents drawing their own district lines, but as various political analysts have shown, that factor is minor compared to these highly partisan residential patterns, which make it difficult to draw competitive districts no matter who is drawing the lines.
It also means that if we mandated voting, election results would not change much because the partisan residential patterns and one-party fiefdoms would still prevail. We would have millions more voters, but for the most part they would vote for the same type of candidates from the two major parties. The net result would be a Legislature much like today's.
Thus, the challenge for the future is threefold: How do we engage nearly 7 million nonvoters and turn them into voters? What changes must occur so new types of candidates with fresh ideas capable of inspiring these nonvoters can get elected? And what reforms would eliminate one-party districts and produce candidates who appeal to currently frustrated voters? Sixty percent of those disenchanted voters told a New America Foundation poll that "government would perform better if a wider variety of candidates were elected." In short, how do we open up our political system so that it appeals to the broad interests of all Californians? With these criteria in mind, here are the key political reforms that California must enact.
1. Automatic voter registration: The first step is to get the millions of eligible Californians who are unregistered on the voter rolls. California's government should do what the Bush administration insisted the Iraqi government do -- automatically register all eligible voters, which has resulted ironically in Iraq having a higher percentage of adults registered to vote than either California or the United States.
Here's how to do it. Any eligible Californian who receives services from a state office like the Department of Motor Vehicles will be automatically registered to vote. Thanks to the recent creation of a statewide voter database, this can be accomplished while maintaining the highest safeguards against voter fraud. In addition, any eligible Californian listed in the database of any state agency but not in the voter database will be added automatically to the voter database.
Young people are among the least-registered, but that can be easily fixed. High school students who are 16 older should be pre-registered during their civics class so that when they turn 18 they become automatically registered. California already has a "birthday card program" in which high schoolers can pre-register and on their birthday are mailed a voter registration card. The secretary of state's office says converting that program to automatic registration would be easy.
But registering people to vote is a bit like getting a membership at the gym: It doesn't do much good if you don't use it. So the next crucial reforms must inspire registered voters to want to vote.
2. Independent redistricting commission: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Common Cause and others have proposed an independent redistricting commission. Their proposal represents a good first step, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. While it might increase competition in a handful of races -- and a handful is better than none -- redistricting commissions in other states, including Arizona and Iowa, have not proven effective at increasing competition. Districts with concentrated party membership combined with winner-take-all elections are the primary culprits, not who draws the district lines.
Nevertheless, an independent redistricting commission would remove the appearance of corruption caused by incumbents drawing their own legislative districts. That's reason enough to support it as a modest first step.
3. Proportional voting: This process, which is used by most established democracies in the world, is the most important political reform for California because it will help to launch new candidates with fresh ideas, inspiring to nonvoters and voters alike.
First, proportional voting opens up the playing field so that voters are no longer bunkered down in red and blue one-party districts. All parts of the state instantly become competitive for both major parties: Republican candidates would win a few seats in liberal urban and coastal areas, and Democrats would win some in conservative rural areas. Third parties and independent candidates also would win a few seats. Purple California -- a mixture of red and blue -- would come into existence.
Second, because voters have more choice from a range of new faces, voter participation would increase. Other democracies using proportional voting enjoy double the voter turnout of the United States.
Proportional voting systems have been used around the world and in local U.S. jurisdictions for decades. There are many ways to design a system. One model for the state Assembly would be to convert the current 80 single-seat districts into 16 districts with five representatives each. Voters would rank as many as five candidates in each district, and any candidate who gained at least 17 percent of the vote would be elected. A political party winning a 51 percent majority would win three of the five seats, instead of all the representation, as it is now. Political parties would win representation in proportion to their voting strength at the polls -- and representation would be based on what you think rather than where you live -- creating true representative, multi-choice democracy.
4. Instant runoff voting: Proportional voting is best for electing legislatures, but for statewide executive offices such as governor or U.S. senator, the best method is instant runoff voting. As with proportional voting, voters rank their candidates 1, 2, 3. If no candidate has a majority of first choices, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her voters automatically give their vote to the second-ranked candidate. If a candidate has a majority of the vote at any stage, he or she wins; if not, the elimination process continues until one candidate gains a majority.
Instant runoff voting was approved by voters in Oakland and Davis in November. San Francisco voters have used instant runoffs since 2004 to elect local officials. Exit polls show San Francisco voters across all racial and socioeconomic lines like and understand the system. Using instant runoffs to elect the governor and other statewide officeholders would make Californians feel like their votes count and open politics to new candidates and new ideas.
5. Campaign finance reform: The landslide loss of Proposition 89, which sought to enact public financing of political campaigns, was a significant setback for campaign reform in California. Campaign finance reform is still badly needed, but proponents have to become more pragmatic in their goals and more modest in their claims about what it can accomplish.
We should provide free media time for qualified candidates, since media tends to be the most expensive part of a campaign (especially in a populous state like California where a single state Senate district has 800,000 residents). State regulation is limited by federal law, but in other parts of the country local broadcasters have agreed voluntarily to provide free media time.
We should also shoot for partial public financing (like that used successfully for local elections in Los Angeles and San Francisco) rather than Prop. 89's full public financing. Partial financing is much less expensive yet still effective. After raising enough money to reach a threshold, candidates would receive matching funds for each additional dollar they raise up to the spending cap.
The population of California is changing before our eyes, and so must our antiquated political institutions and practices. We should avoid timidity and act now. Our state can ill-afford any delay.