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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Deliberative Poll in California -- Mathews's Observations

At Fox and Hounds, Joe Mathews reflects on last weekend's deliberative poll in California. One item that got attention was the complexity of government (which we discuss at the start of our chapter on federalism):
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.

Our chapter on elections notes that the average member of the California Assembly represents 137 times as many people as his or her New Hampshire counterpart. The participants saw the numbers as a problem:
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.