California Legislature: Time for a bugfix?

Article 4 of the California Constitution is where the legislative branch is established.

I have been musing about the structural shortcomings of our state constitution for a long time. Every year, there is the “missed budget deadline” series of articles, because structurally the constitution sets the state up for gridlock.


The constraints on state power, such as requiring significant buy-in from the minority party, are part of what keeps California from going completely off the rails. Unfortunately, the impediments to wasteful, frivolous, and excessive state interference work at least as well at stifling important but politically difficult decisions.

Witness the difficulty in passing prison reform, despite universal agreement that the current system isn’t working. Witness the difficulty in passing expanded state health insurance, despite the support of the governor and a sizable majority of both chambers of the legislature. For most causes in this state, it often appears that only powerful lobbies can overcome hurdles to get legislation passed. Usually, given the involvement of those lobbies, the result is twisted to serve their ends.

A separate issue with the current constitution is our lack of representation. Given the presence of so many “voter initiated” initiatives in the ballot you might think I’m joking… but I’m not.

Consider for a moment the nation in 1790. At the time, the total US population was about just about 4 million people. For those 4 million people at the federal level there were 26 senators and 65 members in the house of representatives. At the federal level, this works out to 1 senator per 154,000 citizens, and 1 representative per 61,500 citizens. (With even more representatives at state and local levels, of course.)

Contrast that to California today. Our population is about 36.5 million. We have 40 state senators and 80 state assemblymen. That breaks down to about one state senator per 912,000 citizens and one assemblyman per 456,000 citizens. At the state level, each assemblyman now represents more than seven times as many people as the revolutionary era federal representatives.

The third major issue is view point diversity. Right now, it is a truism that third parties can’t win– they just steal votes from whatever party they come closest to matching. The winner take all system strongly encourages voting safely and influencing parties from within. Splinter parties just sabotage the party they most resemble.

I have a crazy idea that these three things can be fixed at least in part. I have in mind an initiative to reformulate the system of governance in California. I hope it will set new patterns in our stilted discourse, increase representation, and encourage diversity in elected opinion.

But more on how I’d do that next post.