Overhaul of state electoral system sought
Legislation would create a 'citizens assembly' to propose changes to voters.

By Andy Furillo
Published December 20th 2005
Two California assemblymen known for their efforts at bipartisan cooperation have joined forces on a bill that seeks to fundamentally overhaul the state's electoral system in a search for its political center.

Under the legislation to be submitted next year by Democrat Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg and Republican Keith Richman of Northridge, a "citizens assembly" would be created to come up with a new electoral system and place it in the form of a constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot.

A draft of the bill doesn't mention what kind of changes might be proposed. But Canciamilla and Richman said in interviews that they strongly favor such changes as proportional representation, independent redistricting, term-limit modification and campaign finance reform.

"We recognize that the state is in trouble, that there are a lot of questions being asked (about) whether California is still governable, about the growing influence of special interests and money in the politics of the state," Canciamilla said. "And we also believe that the system is dysfunctional."

Richman, who teamed with Canciamilla in previous efforts to forge compromises on the budget and on energy legislation, said "people don't have trust in the government to solve the problems that we face, and so there is currently a lot of cynicism and apathy toward government, and rightfully so. So it's important that we have a process that at least begins to try and re-engage the citizenry."

Richman and Canciamilla came up with the "citizens assembly" idea this year in the background of the special election, away from the fury of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "year of reform" campaign that saw his four hotly contested government overhaul initiatives go down to defeat.

The two legislators were joined in their discussions by academic figures such as Stanford history professor David Kennedy, political reform guru Bob Stern, redistricting expert Doug Johnson of the Rose Institute and David Lesher, the head of the New America Foundation's Sacramento think tank.

"My own view is that the California political system has serious, systemic issues that require a searching examination of the structure of the state's institutional politics," said Kennedy, co-director of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West. "That's what citizens assemblies are aiming to do, and that's what we're aiming to do as well."

The two members' proposed re-engagement of the electorate would start with the creation of a citizens assembly in California. If it gets off the ground, the group would begin investigating California's government and political structure in January 2007, hold public hearings up and down the state, and come up with recommendations by the end of the year that would be presented to the Legislature. Any proposed constitutional changes would then be placed on the November 2008 ballot.

The body would be made up of two members from each of the 80 state Assembly districts, selected by a task force of academic experts from a pool of volunteers representing the state's adult population according to age, gender, race and geography.

Canciamilla and Richman are seeking $20 million from the Legislature to fund the citizens assembly. If they are rebuffed, they said they will try to place an initiative on the ballot in November 2006 to get the panel up and running.

"We're not suggesting an outcome," Canciamilla said. "We're trying to focus on electoral reform, and that could be pretty much anything. It's not going to be up to us to decide what would be discussed or not. We're trying to set up a framework that would allow the participants to have a conversation."

Richman said the need for a changed system is "critical."

"I think the confluence of gerrymandered districts, short term limits and campaign finance have resulted in legislators being unwilling to do anything other than vote for the agendas of the special interest groups that are going to help them get re-elected or elected to their next office," Richman said.

Although the draft legislation does not recommend any specific changes in the electoral system, those involved say they are interested in exploring a proportional voting system along the lines of the parliamentary systems of Europe.

The New America Foundation was asked into the conversation as a result of its research on a newly created proportional voting system in British Columbia. The foundation's Lesher said one example of proportional voting would feature multiple-seat districts in which voters might be asked to select four candidates each in 10 state Senate districts rather than just one each in the current 40 districts. Accompanied by guaranteed representation for any political party that reached a minimum threshold, Lesher said such a system could result in more urban Republicans and rural Democrats being elected in districts that are dominated now by one party or the other.

"One of the problems in Sacramento is that the Legislature is too polarized and that there is a great, vast center in California that is not adequately represented," Lesher said. "When you think about political reform, it's how do you create a legislative body that reflects its constituents better than Sacramento does today?"

Stern, author of the state's Political Reform Act of 1974 and currently head of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, called the idea of a citizens assembly "creative and far-reaching."