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Foon Rhee

Think California’s Legislature doesn’t represent you? Here’s a fix for that.

Whatever our party or politics, a lot of us in California don’t believe we’re truly represented at the state Capitol. Every so often, that discontent produces a sweeping idea to change the Legislature.

Now, there’s a proposed constitutional amendment to replace the existing 40 state Senate districts of about 930,000 people each with eight “geographically and culturally distinct” districts – ranging from 923,000 to 5.2 million voters – that each elect five senators.

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Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Yuba City Republican who unveiled the plan this month, says it would give a bigger voice to the rural north state and the Central Valley, now drowned out by Southern California and the Bay area.

I’m not a big fan of this idea. In fact, because it tears up the principle of one person, one vote, you could argue these mega-districts would make California less representative.

I’m more intrigued by the latest push to increase the number of legislative districts. A federal lawsuit claims that our rights to representation are being violated because the size of the Legislature – 40 senators and 80 Assembly members – hasn’t changed since 1862 (and was made permanent by the 1879 Constitution) even though the state’s population has grown from about 420,000 to nearly 40 million.

That means the number of Californians represented by each Assembly member has jumped from about 5,200 to nearly 500,000. And that dilutes the power of each vote and makes it nearly impossible for legislators to represent competing interests, according to the lawsuit.

There are problems with the suit. For instance, the plaintiffs want one senator per county, which again would violate one person, one vote. Yet maybe it will take the courts to tackle this issue since it’s an extremely long shot that legislators will put any constitutional change on the ballot that would diminish their own clout.

I know: You may be thinking we need more politicians roaming around Sacramento like we need a plague of locusts.

But as we get ready to celebrate our democracy on July Fourth, we should consider this: California has taken steps to make it easier to register to vote, and to cast ballots. That’s great, but our low voter turnout isn’t going to turn around unless state government is more fully representative.

Other big states have many more legislators. Our state Senate districts represent more people than congressional districts (about 711,000) – which is “kind of crazy,” as Kim Alexander, founder and president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, points out.

“People often tell me they don’t have good representation in Sacramento. I tell them that’s because you don’t,” she says.

The goal of any change should be to make it easier for Californians to be heard and to hold elected officials accountable. Having more legislators could bring them closer to their constituents. It shouldn’t take a crisis such as the Oroville Dam evacuation to have well-attended town hall meetings.

Also, smaller districts could also lessen the influence of big money and special interests and make it easier for grassroots candidates to win. “It would help level the playing field,” Alexander says.

Derek Cressman, a longtime good-government reform advocate in California and former national vice president of Common Cause, agrees that with smaller districts “it would make it more possible to win through walking a district and holding community forums.”

There has been recent progress in making California more representative. Pushed by good government groups and foundations, voters gave the drawing of legislative districts to an independent citizens’ commission, starting in 2011. On the local level, more cities have switched to district city council elections, which give all neighborhoods a bigger say than citywide races.

There’s no simple solution to getting citizens closer to their government, however, and there can be unintended consequences. The “top two” primary created more competition in Democratic or Republican strongholds and in down-ballot statewide races. But the Green Party argues it’s making it too difficult for minor party candidates to get on the ballot.

A proposed measure in 2015 for “neighborhood” districts would have meant 3,900 senators and 7,800 Assembly members. It didn’t make it to the ballot, thank goodness, because that goes way too far.

Still, creating a reasonable number of additional legislative seats could calm the misguided calls to split up California. A lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is a main proponent of the State of Jefferson, the resurgent movement to carve a separate state out of 21 rural counties in Northern California.

The Six Californias campaign led by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper failed to qualify for the ballot in 2014. But it highlighted a real issue: the growing divide between the wealthy coast and struggling inland California. One of the six states would have been the richest in America, while another would have been the poorest.

California is special. Instead of breaking it up, we should make it work better for everyone. We brag all the time about leading the way on all sorts of policies. So why do we cling so tightly to a Legislature designed 150 years ago? Shouldn’t we at least talk about how to make it more democratic?

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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