There’s an old saying, Bites isn’t sure where it comes from: “The only cure for democracy is more democracy.”
It’s been attributed to progressive legend Al Smith. Then again, its been attributed to The Monkey Wrench Gang author Edward Abbey, and even, oddly enough, to Alexander Hamilton. Whoever said it had the right idea, and who knows, maybe one day it will be credited to Santa Barbara historian and activist Michael Warnken.
For a couple of years now, Bites has been keeping tabs on Warnken’s quixotic attempt to make California’s democracy more representative.
His basic complaint is that democracy can’t possibly function on the scale that we try to make it work in California.
In the late 19th century, when California moved to an 80-member Assembly, we had one representative in that body for every 1,157 Californians. Today, we still have 80 Assembly members, but we have 36 million people in the state. That works out to one Assembly member for every 450,000 Californians.
“These massive districts cripple the effective value of each citizen’s vote and amount to vote dilution,” Warnken complains. And the sheer size of the districts makes it impossible to run a viable election bid without a costly mass-media campaign.
And once in office, just how well can a representative get to know a constituency of a half-million people? How do those half-million regular citizens compete with the California Chamber of Commerce or any of the state’s powerful American Indian tribes for face time with their reps?
“It is physically impossible,” says Warnken.
In fact California is the absolute worst among all the 50 states in representing its citizens in the state house. The second worst is Texas. But even there, the state’s 150-member lower house adds up to one rep for every 139,000 citizens—three times better than in California.
Vermont boasts one elected representative per 4,000 citizens, but New Hampshire is tops—their 400-member House of Representatives provides one elected official for every 3,000 residents.
Somewhere in the middle of the pack are states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Georgia, which each boast one representative per 40,000-45,000 residents.
Just to reach this middling level of democratic oomph, California would have to multiply the size of its Assembly tenfold—from 80 members to 800.
But Warnken hasn’t found anybody inside the Capitol willing to take up the cause. Bites even tagged along with him once when he tried to deliver his petition to “remedy unconstitutional representation” to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But we only got as far as the governor’s mailroom. (See “Reassembling the Assembly,” SN&R News, May 31, 2007.)
So Warnken is pursing the only option left to a citizen alienated from the halls of power—he’s suing.
Last week, in a federal court in downtown Sacramento, Warnken filed a complaint naming Gov. Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Jerry Brown and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen as defendants. He is asking the court to declare the number and size of California Assembly districts unconstitutional.
Last Bites checked, Warnken was pursuing the case without the help of a professional lawyer. That’s not generally a good sign, but then again, the judge is Lawrence Karlton, who once ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “under God” was unconstitutional. So His Honor is not shy about blowing a few minds.
“I think it’s got a shot. I think the court will be forced to take a look at it,” Warnken explained. “Things are just too f——d up right now.”