News & Politics

A Citizens' Assembly in the Golden State

A fairly radical proposal is on the table to reform California politics by giving its citizens the power to offer proposals directly to the voters.
What does real democracy look like? Certainly not like the political system in California, where 80 Assembly members in the lower house of the Legislature purportedly represent the interests of 36 million citizens -- a ludicrous proposition on its face. For decades in the Golden State, political reform activists have found themselves stymied by the entire political establishment in Sacramento resisting institutional changes to the hilt.

Now, Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and Keith Richman, R-Northridge, two Assembly members with a close political relationship and a history of offering resolutions to reform California politics, are floating a new, fairly radical experiment in direct democracy. They propose addressing electoral reform through a Citizens' Assembly, a concept largely modeled on a novel democratic experiment in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

In what started as a 2001 campaign promise by British Columbia premier candidate Gordon Campell that was established by a unanimous vote by the province's Legislature in 2003, academics picked a Citizens' Assembly composed of two members from each of British Columbia's 79 electoral districts using a random selection process from a list of almost 16,000 names. Two representatives of British Columbia's native residents joined, bringing the total of voting members to 160, and Jack Blaney -- a former university president and veteran negotiator -- was named chair, charged with organizing and overseeing the project.

The Assembly spent eight months in a learning phase starting in January 2004, meeting on weekends to discuss ideas with elections experts and to hold public hearings. The members then debated various proposals over the next few months, and submitted their final proposal to establish proportional representation in the Legislature. The Assembly's proposal was placed as a measure on a referendum ballot in May 2005, requiring 60 percent of the vote for passage.

Blaney, who chaired the Citizens' Assembly through 11 months of deliberation and its final vote in 2004, was exultant after the 146-7 vote that the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly made in favor of throwing out the province's 19th-century electoral system. The standing winner-take-all format was rejected, and in its place the Assembly proposed a system of proportional representation. "This really is power to the people," Blaney said at the time.

In the final tally, the proposal came short in the public's referendum vote, receiving 58 percent. But voters in British Columbia will have the chance to vote for the Citizens' Assembly proposal again this year. The idea of imitating a Citizens' Assembly is under consideration in the province of Ontario, and talk has spread abroad to Australia, the United Kingdom and Taiwan.

Although Canciamilla and Richman's stands on policy issues are quite moderate, the bipartisan pair is widely viewed by colleagues as outsiders for their focus on political reform. The reception in Sacramento to their Citizens' Assembly idea was chilly to say the least.

When Richman and Canciamilla made their announcement in late January, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez hid behind the democratic mechanism of voting to dismiss their proposal, telling the press that, "If voters want reform, they can make that decision at the ballot box every November. There is no need to spend millions of dollars to create another government entity with no proven track record."

Canciamilla said the spokesman's statement revealed just how ineffective the mechanism of voting has been for California citizens who want to fight back against the political establishment in Sacramento.

Canciamilla and Richman have been aided by academics at California universities and voting experts like David Lesher and Steven Hill of the New America Foundation. The idea of a Citizen's Assembly was recently the topic of a three-city speaking series hosted by the Commonwealth Club that featured Gordon Gibson, the architect of the British Columbia model.

The Citizens' Assembly in California

How exactly would a Citizens' Assembly work?

First, the proposal for a Citizens' Assembly would be placed on the ballot and offered to the voters of California. If a majority approves the proposal, then a selection task force of six California university academics would pick one man and one woman from each of California's 80 Assembly districts. Ten additional members would be selected to ensure greater diversity on the Assembly panel. Members who agree to serve on the Assembly would be offered a small stipend. The task force would also pick a nonvoting chair of the Assembly to run and organize the process.

Politicians who fear their constituents might attempt to radically restructure the state have little to worry about. "They'd have a narrow mandate," Richman says, limited to electoral reform.

But as Richman said on the day of the Citizen's Assembly announcement, serious reforms to the political and election system are needed "before we can solve the specific problems that threaten our prosperity and quality of life such as education, housing, transportation, and health care." Even with a narrow mandate, there would be plenty of room for California citizens to shape the state's political process: They could address issues like redistricting, term limits, instant runoff voting and campaign finance -- all of which are sorely in need of change. In the last general election in California in 2004, for example, not one of the state's 100 legislative seats up for grabs changed parties.

Over the period of a year, the Citizens' Assembly would be briefed by academics and political experts on reform issues and hold public hearings across the state. After negotiations and a vote among the Assembly's members, a proposal or proposals they adopt would be placed on the ballot in the 2008 statewide general election. If a simple majority of California voters approved a proposal, it would take effect as law. While the State Legislature would be allowed to review the proposals and offer recommendations to the Citizens' Assembly, it wouldn't have power to do anymore than advise.

Let the voters decide?

Why not just put the desired reforms on the initiative ballot itself for California voters to decide on? As Richman's website explains, "While some use hastily drafted voter initiatives to avoid our broken government structure, the best solution is reforming our electoral process to increase the chances it will select leaders who understand our serious problems and are committed to solving them."

And the process of the Citizens' Assembly itself, even if it didn't revolutionize California politics in the first go-round, could give Californians a sense of a stronger stake in the political process and encourage them to participate. Both Richman and Canciamilla agreed that the process could kick off greater reforms and reignite a discussion about what real democracy in California could look like.

The New America Foundation, in its overview of the Citizens' Assembly proposal, argues that the process would help modernize our political system because it involves "average citizens who have more credibility than the political class."

"It's an alternative to the Legislature," said Bob Stern, co-author of the Political Reform Act of 1974, which was approved by more than 70 percent of voters. "This could work because it goes around the legislative body." Assembly member Richman said that existing reform options like having a Constitutional Convention or a Constitutional Revision Committee are faulty because both require final approval by the Legislature -- the very institution he would use these efforts to reform.

Taking the initiative

Richman and Canciamilla's moderate stands on policies and bipartisan partnership put the politicians of Sacramento who don't support the proposal in an odd position. If arch-right Republicans and Gray Davis Democrats oppose their proposal, what is the political belief that binds them?

Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, a group that has worked with the assemblymen on the Citizens' Assembly proposal, said there was little optimism that it would even get a hearing. "It would probably be very scary for the establishment to give authority to a randomly selected group of individuals," he said.

Asked whether he was optimistic about the prospect of his proposal passing the Legislature as it did unanimously in British Columbia (it will require a two-thirds vote in the California Assembly and Senate), Joe Canciamilla said he recognized the challenge. "But if it doesn't make it through Sacramento, we're prepared to take this to citizens through the initiative process."

Both Richman and Canciamilla know that projects like theirs don't happen overnight, or even in one legislative session. If they take the initiative route for the 2006 election in California, they will need to qualify -- get enough signatures, have them verified, have their proposal certified, etc. -- by June 29. A campaign like that would likely require millions in contributions from donors to educate voters on the idea of a Citizens' Assembly.

"This thing could take years, but that doesn't mean you give up on it," Keith Richman said. "We are convinced that fundamental political reforms are necessary. And we're also convinced that the Legislature isn't going to do it on its own. This isn't going to go away."
Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.
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