Reassembling the Assembly

Constitutional historian says that California was never meant to have one representative for every 424,135 citizens

From a farm in Dixon, Michael Warnken emerged with a well-researched opus on how California’s Assembly fails to adequately represent the state.

From a farm in Dixon, Michael Warnken emerged with a well-researched opus on how California’s Assembly fails to adequately represent the state.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Forget redistricting. Forget new term-limit schemes and campaign-finance reform. If we really want state government to work for us, we need, well, more politicians.

That’s the prescription from Michael Warnken, a 31-year-old paralegal, armchair historian and would-be revolutionary. He wants the California state Assembly to grow from 80 members to something like 800 members.

“When you have 80 people representing 30 million people, it’s just not going to work,” Warnken told SN&R. In California, we have one Assembly representative for every 424,135 citizens. “When you have a problem, you can’t meet your Assembly member. We’re invisible to them.”

The size of California’s Assembly districts is set by the state’s constitution, and any changes to the constitution would have to go before the voters. To “remedy unconstitutional representation,” lawmakers would likely have to put the matter on the ballot, which would suit Warnken just fine.

Warnken lives in Santa Barbara, but has been visiting the Sacramento area, helping his dad on his Dixon farm. In between pruning the trees and tending to the cows, Warnken put together a 75-page opus with a title that’s nearly a page long. It can be boiled down to “A petition to remedy unconstitutional representation.”

And last Thursday, he spent an afternoon submitting the petition to the clerk of the Assembly, the governor’s office, the office of the secretary of state and the office of the attorney general—mostly causing confusion and irritation among the various Capitol staffers.

Warnken’s proud of his work. He’s spent three years reaching back into California history, but also into the early cases of the Supreme Court, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, the beginnings of the British House of Commons and the writings of the Greek philosopher Solon.

With so many historical references, his petition has grown into a sprawling complaint, one that’s tough going for a layperson. But at its center is a simple principle that’s easy to grasp: Our Assembly districts are just too big to be truly responsive to voters.

The sheer size of California’s massive districts ensures that individual citizens have very little chance of meaningful contact with their legislators. “Common sense tells us that the Assembly was never intended to have districts of half-a-million people, or a quarter-of-a-million people or even 100,000 people,” Warnken explained. “We’re frozen out.”

Warnken notes that in terms of representation, California is “three times worse than the second worst” state in the nation, Texas, which has one representative for every 140,000 citizens. Just to catch up with Texas, California would need to triple the size of its Assembly to 240 members.

The best represented state is New Hampshire, which boasts an Assembly of 400 members to represent just 1.2 million people. That’s one representative for every 3,000 citizens.

That’s a lot closer to where California was at its founding. In 1850, the state had 36 Assembly members and a population of about 93,000. The state quickly upped the number of representatives to 80, or one representative for every 1,157 Californians.

But the level of representation hasn’t changed since then, despite the state’s booming population.

Even Warnken isn’t sure California should go as far as the New Hampshire model. Just to come close to the national average of around 40,000 people per district, California would have to multiply its legislative body by 10, to 800 members.

Warnken believes that the smaller districts would allow for more face time with constituents and dilute the influence of money in politics. And he says it would give new life to third parties. Warnken says he’s a Republican, but he has a strong libertarian streak, and he convinced his friends in the Santa Barbara Libertarian party to sign on.

Warken tried to explain all of this to the employees of the Assembly Clerk last week, who didn’t know what to do with the Santa Barbara man’s petition.

“I’ve never had this happen before,” said E. Dotson Wilson, the chief clerk of the Assembly. He didn’t want to sign for the petition. “This is all fanfare,” he said with an annoyed wave of his hand. But at least Wilson talked to Warnken. After a few minutes, he gave Warnken a receipt and even thanked him for “exercising your rights as a citizen.”

At the governor’s office, Warnken was directed to put the document in a box in an otherwise empty mail room. No receipt, and not much chance of getting a reply.

So what happens if Warnken doesn’t get a response to his masterpiece? “This is a shot over the bow” he said. In the event that all the executive officers scratch their heads and put Warnken’s petitions in the round file—which he fully expects to happen—he’s ready to take another path. “We’re gonna nuke ’em. We’re going to drag them into federal court.”

But even if Warnken is right and the sizes of California’s districts are unconstitutional, there are some obvious problems with his plan. Political parties won’t want to see their power diluted one little bit. And wouldn’t we end up with 720 more politicians on the taxpayers’ dime? Warnken says no: We’d just split the current legislative salary 10 ways. That would amount to an annual salary of just under $10,000 for each legislator.

But, where are we going to put all these newly minted Assembly members? The Assembly chambers would start to look a lot like a clown car with 800 legislators crammed into its aisles.

Not Warnken’s problem. “They’ll have to make their own arrangements. I understand Arco Arena might be available soon!”