A Deliberative Poll for CA's Future :: Summer 2011



A legislature is sometimes called “the people’s house,” with legislators elected to reflect the diversity of desires present in any democracy, and to bring input and views from many different voters into the governing process.  In recent years, some have criticized the performance of California’s Legislature, which has led voters to make changes to how lawmakers are elected and paid, who lawmakers represent, and – most significant – a cap on how many years lawmakers may serve.

Basic Structure: The California State Legislature has the power to draft and adopt legislation — subject to the governor’s signature and veto. It is divided into two houses, the Assembly and Senate, and a majority or supermajority of each, depending on the type of legislation, must vote in favor of a bill before it becomes law. The Assembly has 80 members, who must run for re-election every two years.  The Senate has 40 members who face re-election every four years. With two houses, every voter has two legislators representing them and every bill must pass through two legislative processes.

District Size: Although the state’s population has grown from less than one million residents in 1880 to more than 37 million today, the number of seats in each legislative body has stayed the same. As a result, the number of residents represented by each state legislator has tripled since the 1950s (see chart). California today has the lowest ratio of legislators to residents of any state in the country, with one Assembly member for every 467,000 residents and one state senator for every 934,000 residents. 

Many believe that California’s large districts are a problem because it makes it harder to run for office and more difficult to represent such a large group of constituents.  Successful candidates for office must reach large numbers of voters in a relatively short period of time, forcing candidates to turn away from face-to-face campaigning and rely on more impersonal and expensive methods like direct mail, newspaper, TV and radio advertising, and sophisticated social media that intensify candidate efforts to raise money.  Also, with large districts, one legislator can only attend so many town hall meetings, meet with so many constituents, and afford only a few district offices, giving few constituents the chance to interact with them.

Rise and Fall of Legislative Professionalism: During the first half the 20th century, California was governed by what is generally known as a “citizen” legislature, a part-time group, working with little money and staff.   In the 1960s, voters decided to create a year-round legislature, with increased pay for lawmakers and the hiring of professional staff. In 1990, some of these changes were rolled back when voters adopted Proposition 140, which called for legislative term limits and a major cut in the legislature’s budget. The measure limited lawmakers to no more than three, two-year terms in the Assembly and no more than two, four-year terms in the Senate.

Although this project does not offer specific proposals to deal with term limits, Proposition 140’s impact on the Legislature and the quality of legislative representation has been significant. Some think it brings more ethnic minorities into office.  Others say it has drained the legislature of institutional memory, leading to less long-term, strategic thinking and giving more power to special interest groups.

Here are some, but certainly not all, choices to consider about legislative representation:

  • Don’t tinker with the legislative structure.  It has served the state well for more than 100 years.
  • Decrease district sizes to make it easier for candidates to run for office and for elected lawmakers to serve their communities.
  • Change the single-legislator “winner-take-all” system to a “proportional representation” system, where every political group that won significant support in an election would win representation.
  • Move to a unicameral, or one-house, legislature to shrink district size and streamline legislative work.
  • Consider measures like shortening the legislative session or moving to a part-time legislature so lawmakers can spend more time in their districts, strengthening ties to their communities.
  • Consider other reform measures to strengthen accountability, including economic impact analyses of legislation, performance-based management and budgeting, or multi-year budgets.
  • Consider measures like rolling back term limits or lengthening the legislature term to build institutional memory and increase accountability.

Click here to view a video on legislative representation.

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