January 9, 2005
Consider alternate systems of votingGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is
right. California needs a government that's less partisan and better
reflects the many voices in its diverse population. The disconnect
between the government and the governed threatens the state's
ability to solve its problems and plan for the future.
By Steven Hill and David Lesher
But there are better ways for the governor to solve the
redistricting problem than allowing retired judges to redraw the
boundaries for political districts, as he proposed in his State of
the State speech Wednesday. California's single-seat,
winner-take-all election system is just one among many models used
by democracies around the world. And some methods are certainly
better suited to a population with the economic, ethnic and
geographic diversity found in California.
So if the governor is going to open this debate, then let's really
open it. Let's put everything on the table, not just redistricting,
but proportional voting systems, new voter registration
technologies, instant runoff voting and more.
This is also a decision that should be made by the people, not the
politicians. Last year in Canada, the government in British Columbia
did just that. By lottery, it established a committee with 160
citizen-members to study election systems around the globe and
choose the one they thought best. In December, the Citizens Assembly
on Electoral Reform endorsed a proportional voting system that will
be considered by British Columbia voters on the May ballot.
A citizens' commission for California is a great idea, since it
could spotlight a host of reforms that aren't being considered
today. It would put public participation at the forefront of this
important decision. And it would be a fitting gesture for the
The idea of a proportional voting system would also be a major
improvement in California's democracy. Proportional voting is best
suited for populations that are diverse or politically divided. It
was adopted in South Africa after apartheid, and it has been
sanctioned by the United States for the new elections in Afghanistan
and Iraq. A winner-take-all system like ours would be disastrous in
those cases, leaving large populations unrepresented in government.
In California today, Democrats have about a 60 percent majority of
both chambers in the Legislature even though the party only claims
43 percent of the state's registered voters. And there are still no
elected independents in the Legislature even though 22 percent of
California voters are registered outside of the two major parties.
If a proportional voting system elected a government with the
political diversity found in the state's electorate, it would
profoundly change the debate in Sacramento and open the floor to
ideas about health care, education, budgets and growth that are shut
out of the discussion today.
Proportional voting methods use multi-seat districts instead of
single-seat districts. By using multi-seat districts, the state also
could overcome the stifling balkanization caused by entrenched urban
Democratic districts and rural Republican districts. Today,
environmental protection suffers because sensitive land is in rural
areas and money doesn't flow easily to the Republican minority
districts. Likewise, most businesses are represented locally by
urban, Democratic lawmakers. Imagine the change if the Legislature
included elected urban Republicans and rural Democrats. All this is
possible with proportional voting.
So how might it be done? In the state Senate, instead of electing 40
individual district seats, we could elect 10 districts with four
seats each. Voters would have four votes to cast in each
Calculating the votes with a proportional method would give each
party its fair share of the seats. If 50 percent of a district's
electorate voted Democratic, the party would win two of the four
seats. If an independent or minor party candidate won 25 percent of
the vote, he or she would win a seat. More points of view would be
represented, and elections would be competitive again.
Ireland and Australia have used proportional voting systems in their
national parliamentary elections for decades. So has Cambridge,
Mass., and Peoria, Ill. President Bush, when he was governor of
Texas, signed a bill to allow the idea for city elections in
Sure, an impartial "public interest" redistricting would
improve the protectionist gerrymander that incumbent lawmakers
manufactured. But battles would still erupt over the new district
lines, and experts say that even a map drawn by impartial judges
would change only a fraction of the Legislature's 120 seats.
Schwarzenegger has taken a courageous step by grabbing the bull by
the horns. But for a big-idea governor who wants to make state
government more responsive to its population, it would be a shame to
stop at redistricting. Let a citizens' commission decide this
fundamental question, as they have in British Columbia. And consider
alternatives like proportional voting.
About the writer:
- Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow at New America
Foundation in San Francisco. David Lesher is the California
Program Director for New America Foundation in Sacramento.