Some assembly required

Backers say Citizens’ Assembly would reinvigorate our democracy

Assembly members Keith Richman, left, and Joe Canciamilla, right, want you—to help reform California’s political system.

Assembly members Keith Richman, left, and Joe Canciamilla, right, want you—to help reform California’s political system.

Photo By Larry Dalton

You can’t volunteer for it, but if you’re a registered voter, your chances of being called to sit on a Citizens’ Assembly are as good as the next guy’s.

Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and Keith Richman, R-Northridge—both moderate outsiders in a highly polarized Assembly—introduced a constitutional amendment (ACA 28) last week asking the Legislature to let Californians decide if a Citizens’ Assembly might be the way to bring about top-to-bottom electoral reform.

The maverick legislators have proposed the unlikely idea because after five-and-a-half years in the Assembly, they’ve come to believe that giving power to the people may be the only way to clean up the mess created by decades of piecemeal attempts to reform a dysfunctional electoral system.

The proposal is modeled on a successful experiment in British Columbia. That Canadian body came up with a reform proposal that gained the trust of 58 percent of voters. The measure fell short of the 60 percent required for passage, but it will be put to a vote again in 2008 after a more intense communication process educates voters about the reform package.

Here’s how the Citizens’ Assembly would work: A task force first would select 100 registered voters in each of California’s Assembly districts. Selections would be random, yet stratified to take into account demographics and make sure that politicians, judges, lobbyists and their family members are excluded for the list.

Those 8,000 identified—100 in each of the state’s 80 Assembly districts—would be asked about their willingness to serve on the Citizens’ Assembly. The list would be whittled down to 10 men and 10 women in each district, with just two people per district ultimately selected through local meetings. Up to 10 additional people may be added to ensure the sample represents the population.

Those 160-plus citizens would convene two weekends a month—drawing a $1,000 monthly stipend and expenses—over a year to learn about the electoral system, hold meetings across the state to gather input and then offer solutions. Their proposal would be guaranteed a place on the ballot, giving all of California’s voters a chance to say yea or nay to the reforms.

Can ordinary voters take on such a complex task?

For Canciamilla and Richman, average folks may be California’s last great hope for repairing a system so broken that it cannot be mended by the entrenched special interests that currently benefit from the political stalemate in Sacramento.

“It’s not rocket science,” Canciamilla said. “With the right support, people have common sense and will come up with the right solutions.”

“The power of this is the respect that average citizens have for regular people,” said David Lesher, director of the California program for the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that’s pushing the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly.

And with voter cynicism and apathy at epic levels, Canciamilla goes so far as to say that “the process is more critical to us than the outcome.”

At a forum hosted by the New America Foundation last week, Richman asked the more than 100 people in attendance to raise their hands if they trusted the ability of government to resolve the state’s problems. Only about four tentative hands went up.

The very process of a Citizens’ Assembly—which would use public meetings and all manner of technology to gather input, educate and communicate progress—could re-energize an electorate that’s lost faith in its government.

The Citizens’ Assembly would be narrowly focused on electoral reform. Its first step would be to select a non-voting chairman, who would assist in scoping out what members would address. And that’s completely open; everything from redistricting to term limits to campaign financing and a host of other slightly more exotic ideas would be on the table.

Although neither Canciamilla nor Richman is on the record as favoring proportional representation, it’s an idea that’s captured the imagination of many reform groups and is favored by the New America Foundation.

Proportional representation, or P.R. as it’s also known, takes many forms. But it essentially means that political parties or like-minded constituencies win representation in proportion to their voting strength. In a list system, voters select one party and its pre-determined slate of candidates to represent them. In another system, a block of seats is used to add proportionality to a system of one-member districts. In still another, voters elect several candidates from expanded districts.

The combinations and nuances are many, but proponents believe P.R. increases diversity and includes voices that are largely nonexistent in government today. As Lesher pointed out, “More than 40 percent of voters under age 23 are registering outside the two major parties, and there’s not a single independent in the Legislature.”

With P.R., groups like the Greens in Humboldt, Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties might find a voice. Members of the American Independent Party in Lassen, Sierra and Yuba counties might gain representation. Or traditional representation patterns might be turned on their heads, with rural Democrats or urban Republicans elected to office in traditionally noncompetitive districts.

Proportional representation has a nearly forgotten history in the United States. It was used in the early 1900s to break up political machines that dominated governments in Cincinnati, New York and other American cities via single-district winner-take-all elections. It even made a brief appearance in Sacramento, and it’s the system used today to elect representatives in Cambridge, Mass. It is found in countries across Europe and in New Zealand and Australia. And five Canadian provinces today are considering the system.

Instant-runoff voting—said to reduce negative campaigns because candidates vie not just for a clear win, but for first, second, third and other places as voters rank candidates in the order of preference—might be among the ideas considered. San Franciscans used instant-runoff voting, which is also called “choice voting,” successfully in 2004 to elect seven seats on their board of supervisors (city council). With several hotly contested races, all seven winners were decided within 72 hours of the polls closing. And there was no need for a costly runoff election.

A unicameral legislature, which today in America is found only in Nebraska, might be something the Citizens’ Assembly chooses to consider. Those who like the idea say the simplicity and openness of a single house make government more easily understood and legislators more accountable. The opposition argues that it consolidates too much power in too few hands and doesn’t provide the checks and balances that a bicameral house does.

Other ideas that might be considered in a seemingly endless list are: a ban on identifying political affiliation, which some say might dilute party integrity, while others argue it might force candidates to campaign on ideas rather than negative attacks against their opponents; campaigns financed with public funds, which might infringe on the First Amendment rights of free speech or break the grip of special interests depending on how you look at it; and mail-in ballots, which could increase voter participation or open the door to increased fraud, depending on which side of the fence you stand on.

Proponents of a Citizens’ Assembly believe the process will work and that Californians will show up to participate, just like the physicists and pizza-delivery people who racked up 98-percent attendance rates during the 11-month process in British Columbia.

“It’s hard to be against this,” Lesher said. “It’s hard to say that people shouldn’t have decisions about their own democracy.”

But Canciamilla and Richman know it’s an uphill battle. They expect strong opposition from entrenched special interests, from public-employee unions and trial attorneys on the left, from anti-tax and social-conservative groups on the right, and from a Legislature bent on maintaining the status quo.

And there’s no guarantee that ACA 28 will ever get out of the Assembly Rules Committee. Before the amendment was even introduced, The Sacramento Bee and other California newspapers were predicting its failure. The amendment’s authors, who began working last week to educate people on the proposed Citizens’ Assembly, hope for a fair hearing.

If it dies in the Legislature, the plan is to put the idea before voters via a ballot initiative in the future.

Gordon Gibson, a former member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and architect of that province’s Citizens’ Assembly, admits that his resolve wavered early in the process. But in the end, he came away believing that the process was “the greatest addition to democracy we’ve seen in the past 100 years.”