Policy Today magazine Cover
March 1, 2006 - California Ed.

California Assemblymen Keith Richman and Joe Canciamilla are saddling up for one last reform ride. This time, they're taking aim at the system itself.

Assemblymen Joe Canciamilla and Keith Richman are leaning back on the last legs of their termed-out assembly seats, but they have a doozy of a closing act in the offing.

In a time when true bipartisanship is something of a pipe dream, Canciamilla and Richman are throwbacks to more cooperative days. Founders of "The Bipartisan Group" in the California Legislature, they're now setting their sights on an issue dear to every politician's heart: electoral reform. And to do the heretofore impossible—change the way politicians are brought to power—both men are turning to a most unlikely source of inspiration: British Columbia.

That's right, in this era of Freedom Fries and Liberty Pig Strips (Canadian bacon for the uninitiated), Canciamilla and Richman have looked to our neighbors to the north for ways to fix an electoral process that both say is broken.

"Whether you're talking about education, the state's fiscal situation, the lack of infra-structure investment, health care, affordable housing or energy, there is a long list of problems and issues that the Legislature has not addressed," says Richman.

Power to the people?

The two maverick legislators saw a potential remedy in the "British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform." As advertised, it's a body formed by 160 average voters, randomly selected from their districts and brought together for a year of meetings, research and public hearings as they try to find out what happens when things stop being polite and start getting political. Assigned a very narrow mandate—in this case, electoral reform—the group gets to work, consulting experts and conducting research on its way to placing a referendum before voters.

But wait a second. Average Joes and Janes making recommendations about our electoral process that will actually be put on the ballot? Isn't that what politicians are for?

"No," say Canciamilla and Richman.

"It is designed to bypass the Legislature because we believe that there is an inherent conflict in the Legislature making decisions over how its own members are elected," reasons Canciamilla. And while many in Sacramento wring their hands at just how woeful the system has become—the corrupting influence of money, lobbying groups and partisan politics are favorite targets—few will admit that handing over control to the people is an appetizing notion.

"The idea that you would try to gather people together that didn't know anything what they were talking about and putting them into a group to come up with reforms, I'm not convinced that would work real well," says Assembly Member Tim Leslie, (R-Roseville), the senior member of the Legislature. "Caring about government isn't necessarily enough to understand the operations of it."

But Canciamilla points out there's nothing that particularly qualifies politicians to make such decisions either, except the desire to serve and the access to resources that comes with the
title. "Well, how do we make sure the Legislature's qualified to do that?" chuckles Canciamilla. "Part of it is simply trusting that we can make good decisions based on good information and common sense."

Some would argue that the California Legislature's recent track record proves Canciamilla's first point. His second is illustrated better by others. David Wills, a computer systems consultant in British Columbia, served as co-chair of his province's citizens' assembly when it was formed in 2004. He says he was part of a large group of assembly members learning on the job. The two things that distinguished them, he says, were a propensity toward community involvement and an openness to ideas.

"There was a very strong feeling, a lot of excitement actually, that hey, we can do this," Wills says. He's not alone in his sentiment. "There have obviously been comments about average folks making decisions, but I have a lot of trust in the people," says Richman. "The process in British Columbia was a real validation of that."

Making it work

The three-pronged process began with three months of research, followed by 50 public hearings held throughout the province. The group then sifted through 1,600 written submissions before getting together for another six weekends to hammer out recommendations. Was getting 160 people to agree on a single recommendation difficult? Surprisingly not, says Wills. "I think it was fair to say that there were some people in the assembly that were quite expert (at electoral reform)."

While the assembly's recommendation fell short at the polls—the referendum needed 60% to pass and mustered 57.6%—Wills blames that on a non-existent education campaign and the high threshold set by his government. The former has already been addressed by Canciamilla and Richman's proposal.

Education is actually a key part of it, says Rob Dickinson of Californians for Electoral Reform, the group that wrote the legislative proposal the bill is based on. Roughly $20 million is set aside for the proposal, with some $5 million being spent on organizing and funding the assembly, leaving about $15 million for public outreach and education. "And that's a lot of money," says Dickinson.

Money for outreach is crucial, says Dickinson, because electoral reform issues can be tenuous beasts to grasp, with redistricting initiatives failing in both California and Ohio last year. "People don't know much about electoral systems in the United States," he says. But when the funds are put into outreach and education campaigns, "the people generally get it."

The 60% threshold set in British Columbia, Wills believes, was "a political price that had to be paid to get the government to agree to the citizens' assembly." Whether the same thing will happen here remains to be seen. In fact, it remains to be seen whether Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 28 can even get a hearing.

An uphill battle

"It's a very interesting new idea," says Ted Muhlhauser, chief of staff to Assembly Member Betty Karnette, (D-Long Beach), who sits on the Committee on Elections and Redistricting. But it's one of many bills on the committee's docket that Muhlhauser says the assemblywoman hasn't had a chance to review. Canciamilla and Richman seem reconciled to the fact that they have an uphill battle ahead of them. Asked about the influence this election year may have on scheduling a hearing, Canciamilla says, "It won't matter if it's an election year or not; this is the kind of political issue that I think would be problematic no matter when it was introduced."

Lawmakers may have done themselves no favors by foregoing earlier, less threatening drafts written up by Dickinson. "By and large it's the same idea, but they took it a step further," Dickinson commends. "They made the bill a constitutional amendment bill…which I didn't do because politically, it would make it harder to find authors."

By making it a constitutional amendment, any recommendation made by the citizens' assembly would automatically be put to a referendum for the people to vote on, something Wills says was crucial to the integrity of British Columbia's assembly. Otherwise, the citizens' assembly is just another political feint meant to appease an ever-cantankerous public. "I think it's a way to reengage the citizenry in what's going on," says Richman. "Right now the citizens of California are disillusioned with their government."

While Canciamilla says there's no Democratic agenda when it comes to shaping recommendations by the citizens' assembly, Leslie thinks the uproar over corrupt reapportionment is much ado about very little. "I don't necessarily think there needs to be a goal of electing moderates. What we need to do is elect people that really care about doing a good job," he says. "I think that what's missing on the understanding is that there are some very important issues involved and there are some really honest differences of opinion about them. And it seems like everyone's eager to find a way that we don't have to argue with each other." In other words, governance is supposed to be difficult. But should it be tortuous?

The "partisan gridlock" Richman refers to is the fault of "legislators who are unwilling to compromise and break out of the agendas that are set by the special interest groups on either side." Interestingly enough, Leslie is somewhat in agreement, saying the longer he stays in the Legislature, the more he notices the corrosive influence of money and special interest groups. "And I don't know what to do with that, exactly," Leslie says. "The only thing you would accomplish by denying people the right to associate with one another to present ideas to the Legislature is that you would weaken every profession so that they wouldn't be able to stand up for their beliefs."

And while a citizens' assembly comprised to discuss electoral reform would have no say about campaign financing, its recommendations could still have an impact. In British Columbia, for instance, while there are no current plans for another citizens' assembly, a repeat referendum has already been scheduled for 2008 because of the close vote-this time with an education campaign. "The real question is whether the politicians believe in democracy," says Wills. "Do they want to take a chance on democracy?"

As they have throughout their tenure in the Legislature, Canciamilla and Richman are taking that chance. Whether their legislative colleagues and fellow Californians choose to follow is another story.

About Raheem F. Hosseini

Raheem F. Hosseini is a reporter and columnist living in Folsom, California.