The California Super-Majority Stays Home5 min read


The most trenchant analysis of this month’s primary election results didn’t come from California’s certified media punditry and its blather about angry voters, but from my friend and former colleague Mark Paul of the New America Foundation, who offered a much more disturbing read.

On the morning after the election, he wrote in his blog, the papers were “full of stories telling us what the voters said on Tuesday. To which I have to ask, what voters?

“The real story of the Tuesday elections is that voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system.”

Almost seventy percent of California’s voters —nearly 12 million of some 17 million registered voters — nine times the number who voted for Meg Whitman, five times the number who voted for Prop 14 —“kissed off the election.” Although there were no major contests at the top of the Democratic primary, even turnout in Republican areas was dismally low: 16 percent in Riverside County; 25 percent in San Bernardino County.

Paul, co-author with Joe Mathews of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, also points out parenthetically that:

“It’s a measure of how brain dead California’s media have become that Whitman—a politician who spent in excess of $80 million running against an unknown opponent but managed to win fewer votes than the feckless Bill Simon won running against the popular mayor of Los Angeles in the 2002 primary when California had 1.8 million fewer registered voters—is today being described as the owner of a “powerful, well-financed machine.” The whole piece is at

Very likely, the millions Whitman spent, plus the $20 million-plus Steve Poizner spent in his losing campaign, the $46 million Pacific Gas and Electric spent on its losing campaign for Proposition 16, the additional $10 million from Mercury Insurance for its own loser, Proposition 17, managed to drive away some sizeable part of the those non-voting voters.

(It turns, fortunately, out that I was wrong in expecting PG&E’s money to carry its initiative. In Whitman’s case, megabucks won; in the case of Propositions 16 and 17, they didn’t, meaning either that money alone is rarely sufficient to carry a bad measure or just that PG&E and Mercury didn’t spend enough).

But the real problem, as Paul and Mathews argue in California Crackup, a book that should become the definitive text for reform in this state, is that the whole political/governmental system couldn’t be better designed to be dysfunctional and to confuse and alienate voters.

It’s a three-layered system in legislators are elected by pluralities in single-member districts that exaggerate the majority party’s strength; in which supermajority vote requirements are imposed to check simple majorities, essentially giving the minority a veto, and which in turn are further checked and distorted by a majoritarian initiative process. Is it any wonder that the system barely works at all and is often gridlocked and that voters are frustrated and angry?

Paul and Mathews propose a radically different governmental arrangement based on proportional legislative representation from multi-member districts in which all voters will have some voice and thus some confidence; ending supermajority votes for budgets and taxes as well as making other changes in the budget process; restoring more local control; integrating the initiative process with the legislature and making statutory initiatives subject to legislative amendment as all other initiative states do.

Whether California voters, under the buffeting of scores of powerful status-quo interest groups, would be wiling to make a wide range of necessarily interconnected changes, some of them to unfamiliar processes, is hardly certain.

Other things may further cloud the prospects.  Despite voters’ repeated complaints that the legislature isn’t doing its job, in a state where those voters are still over 60 percent non-Hispanic whites, most of them older and more affluent than the general population, and where the population is majority-minority, the voters themselves seem hardly certain that they want the whole thing to work, especially when many of the beneficiaries of public programs are seen as people who have no right to be here at all..

The legislature, which is elected from districts apportioned by the number of residents, not by the number of voters, looks more like the state’s population than it looks like the electorate. It has proportionately more Democrats, more Latinos and more members from inner cities. Members of suburban districts each represent more voters. The system of proportional representation from regional multi-member districts that Paul and Mathews favor would mitigate that. The problem is getting from here to there.

As the percentage of Latino voters increases in the coming years, the gap between population and electorate will slowly close. In the meantime, the hope has to be that voters will come to understand that only they can replace the dysfunctional system that they themselves have put in place.

No one has a better diagnosis of that sick system than Paul and Mathews. What’s almost certain is that even the whole menu of more piecemeal fiddling will do little to address the fearful disaffection that’s turning so many people off.


Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s
High Stakes Experiment
. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society:
Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter,
email him at


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