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Mark Paul and New America’s New Legislature for California

October 15, 2009

A new policy paper (full report – PDF) titled “Remapping A Nation Without States” by Mark Paul and Micah Weinberg, respectively Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation’s California Program, makes what is in some respects a radical proposal for overhauling California’s overburdened and under-representative legislature: proportional representation. While common in Europe and other democracies, proportional representation is almost completely absent from the United States’ various legislative bodies. There exist two main problems with California’s legislature: polarization and a lack of local

The paper proposes a 360-seat legislature that would be elected half through single member districts and half by regional proportional representation. Here’s out it works:

  • First, the state is divided into 8 regions: Northern California, Gold Country, San Joaquin Valley, Bay Area, Central Coast, Greater Los Angeles, Inland Empire and San Diego. Each of this districts is apportioned a number of representatives proportional to their populations.
  • The regions are further divided into districts, equivalent in half the total representatives apportioned to the region.
  • Citizens cast two votes: one for a regional party list and one for a district candidate.
  • Half the seats are awarded to the winners of district elections. The other seats are allocated in a way that brings the total representation of a region as close as possible to the party list votes. This is done using the following formula: Number of Votes the Party Received / (Number of Seats Party Holds + 1). Whoever has the largest quotient is awarded the next remaining seat until there are no more seats to be awarded. (See pages 9 and 10 of the full report for a detailed description.)

This sytem will have a variety of ameliorative effects:

  • Increased representation – simply by expanding the Legislature, the proposal will allow legislators to be more familiar to their constituents. California Assembly districts contain almost 500,000 people, almost as much as a Congressional district while California Senate districts contain almost 1 million people, considerably more than a Congressional district, and yet we expect our legislators to make specific, nuanced local and regional policy decisions. Our Assembly districts are 10 times greater than the average seat in states’ lower house. A larger legislature will be more in tune with their constituents and more familiar with local issues than the current legislature
  • More representative representation – I know that reads horribly but that’s really what would happen: our legislature would more accurately represent our preferences. Consider the following hypothetical: an area of 5 districts contains 51% Democrats, 35% Republicans and 14% Greens, evenly spread out of the districts. Under our current system, the area’s five districts would elect five Democrats whose political position would presumably be equivalent to the average Democrat in the district because of the primary election. The 49% who are either Green or Republican is essentially unrepresented. Under the system proposed, the region would instead by represented by 6 Democrats, 3 Republicans and 1 Green. Doesn’t this seem more reasonable?
  • Greater accountability and competition – in the current system, almost all the seats in our legislature are considered safe seats where one party almost always defeats the other. By introducing proportional regional representation, the proposal would force parties to fight for regional voters of all stripes, instead of competing over primary voters. Parties would be encouraged to move towards the center instead of forming a bipolar system that forgets the interest of independent centrist voters.

Proportional represent would be fought undoubtedly by our state party duopoly and it would represent a bold step away from American norms but the duopoly is not serving its people and norms have not served Californians adequately. Proportional representing then could bring in a new, better era for our state.

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