Poll Shows Support for California "Citizens Assembly" to Recommend Changes

By Frank D. Russo
Published December 13th 2006 in California Progress Report
The New America Foundation, a nonprofit group which supports bringing new voices and ideas into the policy debate and has offices in Sacramento and Washington has released the details of a poll yesterday that shows California voters would like to change the ways that elections are held in the state and are willing to entertain ideas such as independent runoff voting, proportional representation. The poll indicates California voters at first blush would vote for an initiative to create a "Citizen's Assembly," randomly selected from voters, to suggest changes designed to give voters greater choices, including making it easier for candidates who are not Democrats or Republicans to get elected.

These conclusions, and others, are supported by a survey conducted by the Survey and Policy Research Insitute at San Jose State University, a respected polling entity under the direction of its director, Philip Trounstine.

The poll analysis and selected crosstabs and the poll questions and results can be reviewed online or downloaded.

The response to many of the questions asked show a strong underlying feeling amongst voters that the current system favors the major parties, Democrats and Republicans and that it should be changed and that they support the election of more independents, moderates and would like to see more "competitive" elections.

Notwithstanding two caveats, there is important information here which appears to coincide with results from the Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California. The first caution is that the sample size is relatively small (600 registered voters, defined as those who have voted in at least one of the last four elections, which includes a subset of 376 "likely voters" of those who voted in at least two of the last four elections. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 points with the larger group and plus or minus 5 with the smaller group.) The breakdowns in the crosstabs by geographical area, party affiliation, and other categories is undoubtedly higher and should be approached with caustion. Secondly, to not overinterpret the data, the questions asked and their order should be considered.

For instance, while in the analysis and crosstabs, the statement is made that "Three-fourths of voters believe California's system of electing state officials is unfair to independent and minor-party candidates." The exact wording from the poll question and results were are follows:

"Question: Do you believe our election system is fair to independent and minor-party candidates? Or do you think it favors Democrats and Republicans?" 17.5% responded that the "election system is fair." 75.2% said the "system favors Democrats and Republicans." While virtually all observers would agree that the system favors the major political parties, presenting the voters with an either/or choice here implies that a system that favors Democrats and Republicans is not fair to other candidates. Some would argue that it can be both fair to all and favor major party candidates. That was not a choice in the way the question was answered.

Nevertheless, the reponse to this question was rather lopsided. The follow up question "Is that OK with you or not OK?" was answered in the negative by a margin of 66.4% to 28.1%.

Here are the other numbers, presumably coming from the registered voters, rather than likely voters:

• By a margin of 52.8% to 30.2% California is on the right vs. wrong track. The PPIC Post Election Survey http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=723 had their numbers at 53% to 39%.

• The legislature's job approval rating was 42.7 approval to 36.7% disapproval versus only 36% approval and 49% disapproval in the PPIC poll. (These are both improvements for the legislature over prior polling.)

• Arnold Schwarzenegger's job approval is favorable y 61,2% to 30.5%, very close to PPIC's 60% to 32%.

• 46.7% feel the job state government does would be better and 5.2% worse if elections were more competitive. But 36% say it would not be much different.

• 58.3% think the job state government does would be better and 6.2% think it would be worse if a wider variety of candidates had a chance of winning elections. 28.5% say it would not be much different.

• 61.5% say that the system of electing people for state office needs to be improved. 34% say it is OK the way it is.

• 25.5% are generally satisfied with the quality of candidates they have to choose from and 69.5% say they often vote for the lesser of two evils.

• 51.3% California needs "another major party" whereas 38.3% respond that the major parties do an adequate job.

• When asked: "Recently, Canada randomly selected 160 average voters to participate in a year- long study of their election process. The meetings were public and held at convenient times and the participants were paid. At the conclusion, their ecommendations to improve the election process were put on the ballot for all voters to consider. Do you think it would be a good idea for California to convene a voters’ study group like they did in Canada?" 72.8% said it was a good idea versus 18.5% said it was not a good idea. The results show highest support amongst "independents" (80% to 13%), followed by Democrats (77% to 14%) and Republicans (65% to 27%).

• By 64.7 to 18% there is a belief that these average voters cold make intelligent decisions.

• 70% would be more likely to vote for a recommendation of these average citizens versus 10.2% for government and political leaders and 11.3% favoring neither.

• These average citizens were preferred by 48% to 33.8% over "independent experts" in who would cause them to be more likely to vote for a recommendation.

• They would like to see the Governor and legislature place this proposal on the ballot by 74.8% to 17.2% and if this is not done, would vote for an initiative to do it by 66.8% to 21%.

• Instant runoff voting (IRV) is considered a good idea by 52% to 34% with 7% saying "maybe" as to this idea. Republicans are the only group opposed (42% to 44%) with independents and Democrats favoring this by two to one margins. All are more favorable to IRV if it would discourage negative attacks and also if it would save public funds. (Bizarrely, 15% said they would be less likely to support it if it saved public funds!)

• 53.7% feel it is important to elect more independents whereas 29% prefer strong Democrats and Republicans.

• 52.3% feel politically moderate candidates are able to compete fairly in today's elections whereas 37.3% do not.

• 50.5% feel it is important to elect more politically moderate candidates versus 34.8% who prefer strong liberals or conservatives.

• While 50% say they generally support proportional voting versus 23.8% who generally oppose it, 23.7% don't know. After it is explained that it would work by electing more than one legislator from larger districts, general support drops to 47.2% and general opposition rises to 33.7% with 17.2% not knowing one way or the other.

There are interesting subgroup results, bearing in mind the margin of error that suggest rural voters, liberals, union households, blacks, Latinos, and Democrats are the most dissatisfied with issues paid attention to by the legislature and the governor. Also independents, union households, liberals, and voters in the Bay Area are more likely to say they have to choose between the lesser of two evils. There is also strongest support for another major party amongst union households.

Also bear in mind that "independent voters" include both Decline to State (DTS) voters as well as those who belong to the "minor parties."