When plastic industry reform died in the state legislature this year, so did a piece of our democracy

Michael Feinstein
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a June 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State.

The 2019-2020 California State Legislative Session ended on August 31 – and the Legislature’s failure to pass the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act (SB54/AB1080) left a particularly bad stench:

  • Not just because our state legislature failed to confront a state/national/global plastic pollution crisis, when it had well-crafted, visionary legislation to do so in front of it; 
  • Not just because other states and countries look to California for environmental leadership – meaning this was also a moral and ethical failure by our state legislature;
  • Not just because the Act didn’t pass, even though Democrats have a super-majority in both houses;
  • Not just because the bill fell four votes short of passage, as 25 Assembly members didn’t even bother to vote, even though they are elected to represent us; and
  • Not just because Big Oil and Gas industry influence over many state legislators apparently turns them into gutless, spineless, cowards.

The biggest stench is that our political system is designed to let this happen – and with little consequence.

Less than an hour after the close of the Session, CalMatters political writer Laurel Rosenhall posted on Twitter, the first of many to observe:

It’s the 2nd year in a row that the Assembly did not pass this bill on plastic recycling btw, and both years Democrats have held historically huge majorities of about 75%

The conventional wisdom is the Democrats are supposed to be the party of the center-left, and the center-left is supposed to be in favor of the environment. But the reality is the Democrat Party is a ‘big tent’ political party designed to win elections in a duopoly electoral system — not a political party with a clear programmatic identity on many key issues. 

So what does it mean to be a Democrat in this case?  No one knows until the votes are cast or in this case – not cast! That’s what happens when you base your democracy on single-seat districts.

What’s a voter to do?  

Let’s assume 5% of California voters were closely following SB54/AB1080, and were really upset about it failing. Many of these same voters were also upset when AB345 didn’t pass — an environmental justice bill designed to prevent oil companies from drilling near homes and schools. So they decided next time they’d vote for candidates from the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party, candidates they thought would be much better on these issues.

In democracies where legislators are elected from multi-seat districts by proportional representation, that 5% of voters would elect 5% of the total number of legislators – giving people who care about these issues direct representation – and well as giving them political leverage, by subtracting political power from parties that ignore them.

But under single-seat, first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems, that 5% for a Green or Peace and Freedom candidate wins nothing. Instead those voters are effectively ignored, and the political parties that ignore them retain power without consequence — except that in close races, the system fails even more profoundly.  In close races under FPTP, instead of being lauded, voters who vote for what they believe in rather than the lesser-of-two-evils are called ‘spoilers’ and are ‘vote-shamed’, because they ‘spoil’ the chances of a major party candidate who hasn’t earned their vote and doesn’t represent them.  Is that how we should design a representative democracy?  

How would the state legislature look under proportional representation instead?

In the last two years, Democrats have held a 75% super majority in the State Assembly and a 72.5% super majority in the State Senate. That’s a lot of concentrated power, when we don’t know where they stand on key issues.

Under elections by proportional representation, voters in districts currently represented by Democrats would likely be represented by multiple parties. To compete, candidates and parties would need to give voters a more clear picture of where they stand on the issues. Voters could then give their support to candidates and parties based upon where they stand, confident this would be reflected in the number of seats won.  

In ‘Democratic leaning’ districts, this system would clearly give more diverse representation to the majority of center-to-left voters; but unlike in our current system, the minority of center-to-right voters would also win seats, according to their proportion of the voters.  In other words, there would be fuller representation of all voters, and more people from all areas of the state would get a seat at the table of our democracy.

De-plasticizing our economy and politics

Even though there is broad public support among Californians for taking bold steps to address the plastic pollution crisis, bills in the state legislature to accomplish this have failed two years in a row. 

Given this, what should the co-sponsors of SB54 / AB1080 — State Senator Ben Allen and State Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez — do next?  Should they introduce another circular economy bill next session?

If California had elections by proportional representation, the state legislature would more accurately reflect voters’ political preferences, and would likely base more public policy upon them — meaning we’d already be on the way to a circular economy.  

But we don’t have proportional representation. So the traditional argument is “accept the math of the legislature, water down the bill so something will pass, and ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’” But given that twenty-five Assembly members didn’t even have the guts to vote on SB54 / AB1080, that would require a lot of weakening of the bill to get something to pass.  Is that really how we want to be limited in a crisis?

The reality is that ecology and democracy are inter-connected – i.e., we need more democracy to have more ecology.  In the US, those who profit by exploiting the environment often rule the day.  By contrast, European democracies that use proportional representation, are often years — if not decades — ahead on environmental policy.  So while it makes sense to introduce another circular economy bill in 2020-2021 — because of the urgency of the crisis and to build upon the alliance-building already behind SB54 / AB1080 — there needs to be parallel pro-democracy work, so future state legislatures are not so dangerously out-of-step. 

How do we get the state legislature to convene public hearings on proportional representation?

Allen already has a strong record on pro-democracy issues. A former chair of the State Senate Elections Committee, he’s introduced legislation to make it easier to vote, to increase disclosure and transparency in the funding of political ads, and to give general law cities and counties the option to use ranked-choice-voting for local elections.

For her part, Gonzales has already declared for Secretary of State in 2022 — and her campaign website says “Join our movement for voting rights!” In a truly inclusive democracy, perhaps the most profound voting right, is the right for your vote to go towards electing someone who truly reflects your views, regardless of whether you are in a political majority or minority.  That can only happen in multi-seat district elections. It can not, by definition, when electing only a single seat at a time is involved.

But Allen, Gonzalez and others are not going to stick their neck out promoting such needed electoral reforms — unless movements for ecology, justice and others call for it.  

Therefore in the face of multiple (and interlocking) ecological and social crises, it’s time to reject the anti-representative distortions of our electoral system — just like we reject racism, classism, sexism and other structural and systemic inequities.  Our very ability to address multiple crises may depend upon it.

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