Democracy for Iraq – but what about California?

Americans pride themselves on living in a democracy—and almost alone in the world see themselves as having a special responsibility to spread democracy. Iraq is the latest in a long list of countries the United States has sought to help become democratic, and it will not be the last. Indeed, doing so has become a primary justification for our current engagement in Iraq.

Californians likewise have exhibited a strong belief in the virtues of democratic government. We wrote a Constitution creating a representative democracy to hasten our admission into the United States. We supported the Progressives’ efforts to make that Constitution more democratic by adding the initiative, referendum and recall in the early 20th century. And we have used those three forms of direct democracy more than citizens of other state—particularly when we have been less than pleased with the laws our elected representatives make, or who those elected officials are.

Democracy means “rule by the people.” In its representative form it entails “the people” having an opportunity to choose who will govern them, and then at some point in the future to hold them accountable for their actions. Elections are the means for doing both—but only if they are regularly held, fairly conducted and provide a meaningful choice. California elections are held every two years, we have made substantial progress in conducting them fairly and we appear to have a meaningful choice between candidates of two major parties (and some minor ones) for most offices. But do we really?

After each 10-year census California’s 120 legislators redraw the boundaries of the districts they represent, and those our 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives represent. Both groups quite naturally like to have those boundaries drawn so they will have as little competition for reelection as possible—and be able to stay in office as long as possible. In 2001 (like in 1971, 1981 and 1991) the Democratic majority in the state legislature did just that. But unlike earlier years, this time the Republican minority cooperated–exchanging “safe” seats for minority status for the rest of the decade.

In the November, 2004 election “our” representatives’ plot succeeded. Of 153 legislative and congressional races in which there was a challenger, not a single seat changed from one party to the other—and in 20 races the minority party did not even field a candidate! Incumbent officeholders customarily benefit from a variety of advantages in an election—from name recognition to newspaper endorsements to professional staffs to well-cultivated financial resources. But with no incumbents running in some 40 races, the California electorate was either unusually satisfied with its current crop of elected officials, or denied a meaningful choice of candidates for many seats.

Having a meaningful choice means more than one candidate to choose from, and either of at least two candidates having a reasonable possibility of winning. Being able to hold one’s representative accountable for how well he or she has governed means a reasonable possibility exists of replacing them with someone else. Unfortunately these two essential qualities of democracy are in short supply in California today.
The way legislative districts are currently drawn in California not only reduces the democratic quality of our political system, but often creates districts that are hard to represent because they lack common interests. The result is a further diminution in rule by the people in our state. The conflicts of interest elected officials sometimes exhibit have the same effect, and the most serious one is when those running for reelection choose their voters by how they draw their district boundaries—rather than allowing voters to choose who will best represent them.

Proposition 77 on the November 8 special election ballot will give the electorate of California an opportunity to take a significant step towards restoring choice and accountability to elections, thereby strengthening rule by the people (i.e., democracy) in this state. It will amend the state Constitution to have a panel of retired judges (rather than legislators) draw district boundaries according to a number of criteria—but without considering the party affiliation of the voters. This holds out the possibility of increasing the chances for more meaningful choice in elections, competitive contests for public office, accountability on the part of elected officials and genuine democracy in the Golden State. If Americans are fighting and dying to bring democracy to Iraq, Californians (through the peaceful means of the ballot box) should seek to bring more to their state.

Richard Unruh is a political science professor at Fresno Pacific University.