(originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily)
This past weekend, more than 300 Californians - chosen at random, as part of an audience shaped to reflect the views and demographics of the state's registered voters - gathered at a Torrance hotel for California's first-ever Deliberative Poll.
They spent a few hours each talking in small groups - and then asking questions of experts together in one large room - about possible changes in California policy on four topics: the initiative process, legislature and representation, state-local government relations, and taxation.
I closely observed two different sub-groups during the poll. These groups may or may not be representative of the larger whole, and I don't have poll results. The first preliminary results are due to be issued this Wednesday during a lunchtime event at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. But here, based on my own observation, are a few impressions:
-No ideological bias.
The poll was attacked beforehand from right and left for ideological bias. As someone who is very sensitive to this, I looked and looked for ideological bias and didn't see it. The discussions were wide-ranging and all sorts of viewpoints were represented. Since the anti-tax right seemed particularly suspicious of this, let me assure them: anti-tax views were very strong in the sub-groups I attended and in the larger audience.
-The complexity of California's government is the biggest obstacle to fixing it.
It was striking how smart and thoughtful the participants were. It was also striking just how difficult it was for them to understand California's strange and complex governing system. They had particular trouble with unlocking the state and local government relations. One sub-group I witnessed was so utterly defeated and confused that I'm pretty confident that no one in the group was able to conclude much of anything.
In fact, the dutiful nature of the people in these groups - and their desire to understand exactly how things work and the history of how we got into this - worked against them in these conversations. Because the history is so long and complicated - so many legislative acts and ballot measures - sometimes the conversation seemed to get bogged down in attempts to untangle the history. Conversations were more productive when people ditched the background and simply talked about the values and principles they wanted in a particular policy area, and talked about what might work best.
The lesson I took from this: it's just too hard to build reforms of the governing system on the current system. We are far better off starting from scratch - with a blank page and new constitution.
-The information on the initiative process was insufficient for a productive deliberation.
Caveat: I'm very hard to please when it comes to discussions of the initiative process, the part of the California governance structure I understand best. But I thought the information given deliberators was so incomplete that the entire conversation wasn't much use.
Deliberators simply couldn't get answers to several of the informational questions they asked during a panel discussion on initiatives. Among the questions left unanswered was a query about the different possible ways to do title and summary and make initiatives clearer. (Other states and countries offer a wide variety of models, but none of that was communicated). Even more crucial, a question about what other states do in terms of permitting legislative bodies to undo initiatives after a set of period of time also went unanswered. This is important because it goes to the heart of what makes California an outlier in the initiative process - we're the only place on earth that prohibits legislative amendment of initiative statute, and we're one of the least flexible places in terms of permitting compromise and the fixing of errors in the early stages of an initiative process.
There are options and arguments on all sides of the question of how to change the initiative, whether your goal is to restrict the process, or expand it, or some combination of both. But deliberators, unfortunately, heard almost none of them.
-People want more representation, even if it means more politicians.
One idea that seemed to stand out in the conversation - and have broad appeal --was the idea that the legislature should be bigger.
That is to say, California legislators represent too many people - and thus the size of the legislature should be expanded. The notion of also going from a two-house legislature to a unicameral also seemed to have appeal. This was surprising because the conventional wisdom is that voters would never support anything that would involve creating more elected officials.
Why did this catch on? My suspicion is that, over a weekend in which deliberators struggled with all kinds of competing views on complicated issue, the math and arguments here were relatively clean and easy. The deliberators saw numbers showing how little representation they get compared to the rest of the country: California Assembly members represent more than three times as many people as lower-house representatives in large states - and ten times more people than the national average.