Citizen's assembly can lead reform

By Steven Hill
Published March 15th 2005 in Progressive Populist
The first-year honeymoon is over, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger now must decide whether to engage in an epic battle to transform politics in California. It looks like the Govern-ator is up for the task, putting reforms like legislative redistricting on the top of his agenda.

But the challenges he faces are daunting. Solving the budget crisis will require compromise with a Democrat-dominated legislature, but reforming government means attacking a dysfunctional legislature. Schwarzenegger may be forced to choose between his two reform agendas or risk losing both.

Given the choice, Schwarzenegger should reform government even if it means delaying policy solutions, because his broader agenda is threatened by a state legislature where the representatives come from safe-seat districts that make accountability difficult. There are creative ideas for solving health care, budgets and other issues that could be seriously considered by a legislature that was more representative and not so complacent.

Governor Schwarzenegger has threatened that, if necessary, he will go over the heads of the legislature to their bosses -- the voters -- via the initiative process. That route holds peril as well as promise. Schwarzenegger may be able to leverage his popularity for victory, but at the price of more partisan bitterness. And if voters reject the measures, it will result in no change at all. In the past two decades, California voters have rejected many reforms, including redistricting reform.

A better vehicle for reform is available, one well-suited to the Governor's populist style. It's called a Citizens' Assembly, and has been on display for the past year to the north, where our Canadian neighbors in the province of British Columbia turned over to the people the task of basic political reform. It holds the advantage of taking the partisanship out of reform, something Schwarzenegger badly needs to do if he wishes to succeed.

The Citizens' Assembly is an independent, non-partisan body, created by the legislature, of 160 randomly selected British Columbians. This effort was unique. Often such task forces are dominated by the usual political hacks, gadflies or good government activists. Nowhere in the world had randomly selected citizens been so empowered to shape major reform. The Citizens' Assembly had 80 women and 80 men from all of the province's 79 electoral districts. The work of the Assembly was unanimously endorsed by the political parties in the legislature and community leaders.

Their tenure was divided into three phases: Learning about reform, January-March 2004; public hearings, May-June; and deliberation, September-November. Their particular focus was to examine the province's electoral system -- that is, how votes for candidates and political parties determine who gets elected to the legislature. They were visited by top experts who gave them the benefit of their knowledge and analysis.

The Assembly delivered a final report in December 2004. They decided that British Columbia should toss out its longtime electoral system, known as "winner-take-all" (elected by single-seat districts, just like most legislative elections in the United States, including California). In its place the Citizens' Assembly selected a proportional representation electoral system that allows voters to rank their candidates. Their research led them to believe that under a proportional voting system "Election results will be fairer, voters will have more choice, and candidates will work harder to earn their support," said the final report of the Assembly.

The Assembly's proposal is being submitted directly to the voters in a referendum this upcoming May 2005. If voters approve the change, the current government will put the new system into effect for the 2009 elections. "This really is power to the people," said Jack Blaney, the chair of the Citizens' Assembly (to find out more about British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly, visit

There are many lessons here for California. The B.C. Citizens' Assembly points in the direction that Governor Schwarzenegger should lead California. He can end run the legislature and partisan shenanigans by turning over the deliberations of the most basic questions to average Californians from every walk of life.

The governor already has opened the debate with redistricting reform. Why not put more on the table, including our antiquated winner-take-all system, privately financed elections, inadequate voter registration, voting in the middle of a busy work day, a broken primary system, and non-majority winners in races plagued by spoiler candidates?

In the mid-1990s, a California Constitutional Revision Commission deliberated on some of these fundamental issues, but it was too timid and politically weak to enact change. But Governor Schwarzenegger has the political capital to make the difference.

California will be much better served if the governor delivers a government that better reflects the diversity and demographics of the New California, and a state legislature that is accountable to the voters. What better way to make the legislature accountable than allowing "we the voters" to redesign the political system via a California Citizens' Assembly?