California Voters' Views on Legislative Representation
This summer, more than 400 Californians came together to learn about, discuss, and answer polls about the biggest challenges facing their state -- including how the California legislature functions:
Background on California's Legislative Representation
In recent years, some have criticized the performance of California’s Legislature, which has led voters to make changes to how lawmakers are elected and paid, who lawmakers represent, and – most significant – a cap on how many years lawmakers may serve.
California's Assembly has 80 members, who must run for re-election every two years. The Senate has 40 members who face re-election every four years. With two houses, every voter has two legislators representing them and every bill must pass through two legislative processes.
Although the state’s population has grown from less than one million residents in 1880 to more than 37 million today, the number of seats in each legislative body has stayed the same. As a result, California today has the lowest ratio of legislators to residents of any state in the country, with one Assembly member for every 467,000 residents and one state senator for every 934,000 residents. Many believe that California’s large districts are a problem because it makes it harder to run for office and more difficult to represent such a large group of constituents.
In the 1960s, voters decided to create a year-round legislature, with increased pay for lawmakers and the hiring of professional staff. In 1990, some of these changes were rolled back when voters adopted Proposition 140, which called for legislative term limits and a major cut in the legislature’s budget.
Proposition 140’s impact on the Legislature and the quality of legislative representation has been significant. Some think it brings more ethnic minorities into office. Others say it has drained the legislature of institutional memory, leading to less long-term, strategic thinking and giving more power to special interest groups.
Participants in the deliberative poll -- which asks participants for their opinions both before and after they spend time studying and debating an issue to see how their attitudes change -- began the weekend with a low regard for the legislature and its efficacy (close to 70% questioned whether the legislature was able “to get important things done” and about the same percentage disapproved of the Assembly and the State Senate).
Despite these difficulties, they were willing to support major structural changes in the legislature to improve its performance. For example, there was a dramatic increase in support for “lengthening Assembly terms from 2 years to 4 and Senate terms from 4 years to 6.” When first interviewed at home, this reform received support from only 33% of the participants. By the end of the weekend, the support had climbed 47 points to 80%.
As deliberators came to support longer terms, they also moved sharply against proposals for a part time legislature. There was a large drop in support for a part time legislature proposal “making the state legislature part-time and paying legislators part-time salaries.” This proposal dropped 18 points from 45% to only 27%.
Participants strongly supported reforms that would empower the public by making good data available to them for public oversight and increasing government accountability, including requiring the Legislature to establish performance goals and track and report progress (86% before and 90% after), requiring economic impact analysis of major legislation (89% before and 90% after).
Lastly, participants addressed the issue of the size of the legislature. When asked about the fundamental trade-off between “having fewer Legislators, even if that means that each legislator represents more people” and the alternative, a situation where “each Legislator should represent fewer people, even if that means that the Legislature contains more Legislators” there was a sharp increase in support for having more legislators each representing fewer people. This option increased 14 points from 57% to 71% after deliberation. Given the low regard the participants had for the job the legislature is doing, this support for increasing the number of representatives is noteworthy.