In the midst of the recent government shutdown, polls showed that a full 78% of the electorate wanted to vote out ALL incumbent members of Congress. While California’s government wasn’t shut down – it is controlled by one party so this is not a realistic possibility – its legislature doesn’t fare much better in most opinion polls.
Why? High unemployment and a high cost of living are certainly culprits but when people are asked, they say that Sacramento is owned by special interests, the funders who fund the campaigns. They also say they are turned off by the whole process – by the media campaigns – and they feel their vote doesn’t matter.
California has tried a number of reforms – most recently the redistricting commission and open primary – but voters are still left wanting. Most of the reforms have addressed symptoms of the problem but really haven’t addressed the cause – this probably serves to explain the continued ambivalence and animus of citizens towards their elected leadership.
Is there a solution? We think there is, which is why this week we are submitting to the Attorney General for title and summary a proposed constitutional amendment that would create the Neighborhood Legislature.
What is this? Nothing less than a transformative, revolutionary restructuring of the way we elect our state legislature. It is actually a very simple amendment – but it has potentially far reaching implications.
The simple change is that Assembly districts can’t exceed 5,000 people and Senate districts can’t exceed 10,000 people. Because the resulting number of districts would be very large, the amendment also provides for the creation of Assembly and Senate Working Committees who are sent by the small district representatives to do the nitty gritty of drafting and negotiating law. The small district representatives vote on all legislation issued by the Working Committee so democratic republican government is preserved.
What are the implications of such a change? First, all campaigns will likely be door to door, person to person, low dollar efforts. Candidates won’t buy TV ads or send repeated mailers to a district this small. Voters will come to expect a personal conversation with candidates. That’s what happens in New Hampshire, which is where we got the idea.
Second, and maybe most importantly, campaign fundraising and spending won’t necessarily be the huge power they are today. Candidates can spend in a tiny district but this can be countered by simple shoe leather – going door to door to spread a message and build name recognition. This also means there will be competition and accountability.
Finally, this change should encourage voter involvement and empowerment. When districts are this small, individual votes matter much more than in the current huge legislative districts (California districts are by far the largest in the country) and turnout and registration should increase as well.
Can we this get done? We think so. We have a dedicated staff, over a dozen strong, which is out in communities all over California, visiting with leaders in the community who believe that California is on the wrong track and needs a fundamental change like this. We believe that the key to educating people and bringing them to the polls is a personal visit from a neighbor – just how the Neighborhood Legislature will itself operate.
To this end, we are recruiting leaders in the neighbors who would consider running themselves in 2016 after this reform passes in 2014. So far, we have almost 3,000 and we hope to have a full 12,000 by the end of 2013. These will be the leaders in the community who will get the signatures to put this reform on the ballot; they will also be the leaders who will visit their neighbors in October and November of 2014 to make sure it passes.
One year from now, the entire nation will be discussing an idea – the Neighborhood Legislature – that will constitute the greatest transfer of power since 1776!