Consider alternate systems of voting

By Steven Hill and David Lesher
Published January 9th 2005 in Sacramento Bee
Gov. 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.

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 People's Governor.

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 super-district.

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 Amarillo.

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.