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Democrats Are Still the Minority Party – If the Other Parties Come Together

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

You wouldn’t know it to listen to Democrats talk triumphantly about their legislative supermajorities. But the Democratic Party remains very much a minority party.

That’s a hard numerical fact. Fewer than 44 percent of California’s registered voters are Democrats.

Which is to say that there’s a 56 percent majority out there of people who aren’t Democrats.

Before Republicans start to feel upbeat about that number, they should remind themselves that they are only a little more than half (some 29 percent) of that non-Democratic majority.

But it’s useful for non-Democrats – and would be-reformers who are worried about the new supermajorities – to remind themselves of all these numbers. The key lesson is this: the Democrats can be beaten – and reform is possible – if non-Democrats can get themselves together.

Indeed, a coalition of non-Democrats has a huge interest in one serious political reform that the state desperately needs: proportional representation.

PR refers to election systems where legislative seats are doled out proportionally to the number of votes that parties get. There are different ways to do this, but what’s important to remember is that everyone in the coalition of non-Democrats – Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, and non-partisans – could benefit from a proportional representation system.

That’s because everyone in the non-Democratic coalition is a loser under the current system. California elections (like American elections) tend to exaggerate the strength of the largest party. That’s why Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature – even though Democratic candidates didn’t get anywhere close to a supermajority of the votes in the legislative race.

Indeed, Republicans, minor parties and independents all have far fewer representatives in the legislature than their proportion of the vote in legislative races would merit.

Thus, a proportional system would give everyone in the non-Democratic coalition more representation. And for the state as a whole, proportional representation would create real political competition – and conversation about ideas – everywhere, since, in proportional systems, every vote has value no matter what it is.

Supporting PR should be a no brainer for every piece of the non-Democratic coalition. And the very small parties already see the value of PR. But alas, Republicans are part of the non-Democratic coalition, and Republicans, at least California ones, tend to see mathematics as a socialist plot.

Indeed, for more than a year, a wise and handsome young pundit has been advising the Republicans on this very web site  to embrace proportional representation – and to secure PR reform by agreeing to end many of the rules that required supermajorities (and allowed Republicans to hold things up).

Unfortunately, GOP ignored my advice. The party still needs proportional representation – but no longer has the leverage of supermajority rules to trade away, because the Democrats have a supermajority.

All that said, it’s worth pushing the idea. It may turn out that reform-minded Democrats could be convinced to see the wisdom of PR, particularly if its enactment were tied to reforms that loosened some of the restrictions on fiscal decision-making by the party in power.

And as a political matter, proportional representation could be the glue that holds together that very broad coalition of non-Democrats – a group that constitutes a majority of Californians.

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