Policy Today magazine cover showing neighbors talking
October 19, 2005

Reconnecting with constituents may take more than redistricting.

Redistricting has been touted as the device that will restore accountability to the California legislature and a way to close the gap between elected officials and the people who voted them into office. And although reapportionment may indeed remedy some of the issues that stain the state government, even its fiercest proponents agree that it's not a cure-all. According to some experts, accountability alone does not a happy constituency make.

Most California leaders agree that much more must be done to enable the state's voting public to feel that their punching a hole on a slip of paper while standing inside a voting box will actually translate into feasible, affected change.

"Redistricting is important because it requires and provides for one person to have one vote," says Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Anaheim). "The essential purpose of redistricting is that each district has the same number of people so that the voters do not become disenfranchised."

But beyond redistricting, what are the ways in which California's representatives can attempt to gain (or regain) the trust of their voters? In an age defined by the overall connectedness of the population, legislators across the country are seeking new ways to bridge the chasm that has opened between
them and their constituencies. People want accountability, and accountability goes hand-in-hand with trust. The problem with trust is that it can take time to develop.

Lengthening term limits

California has one of the most restrictive policies on term limits in the United States. With legislators able to serve a total of 14 years—six in the assembly and eight in the senate—some believe there's just not enough time to get anything done.

Umberg suggests that perhaps a better solution would be to allow members to serve shorter periods of time but in one house. "Maybe if they could serve 12 years, but all in one house, they'd gain a better grasp of expertise."

In turn, he says, lobbyists and staff would have less power because legislators would have more experience. "I served under both systems before term limits had taken effect, and there was certainly a greater depth of knowledge."

Robert Stern of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies agrees. "It should probably be 12 years and not six."

However, he also says that voters love term limits. Why? "Because voters like to throw people out," he says. "It also makes legislators do things more quickly. I worked in the legislature for a number of years and a lot of people were just collecting their paychecks and knew they'd be reelected time after time. We have term limits for presidents and governors, and basically, if you can't do what you say you'll do in eight years, when are you going to be able to do it?"

Umberg contends that it really depends on the personality of the elected official. "Some become complacent, and some become more familiar. Term limits should be modified because six years is too short a period of time to gain requisite knowledge of a place like California."

Opening Up the Primaries

Although California voters have in the past expressed that they want to open up the primaries, the
courts haven't always been on their side. In 1996, 60% of voters approved a proposal that established a blanket primary system, but it was deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Last year Proposition 62—another attempt to create primary elections structured so that voters can choose any state or federal candidate regardless of party registration of voter or candidate—was defeated, with 46.2 percent Yes votes, and 53.8 percent No votes. The same year, Proposition 60, which maintained the closed primary structure, passed with 67.4 percent of the vote.

Stern says California legislators should listen more closely to what the voters are telling them about this issue.

"Because the voters are not given a choice when they're going to the polls, the election is decided for them," says Stern. "The more liberal Democrats and more conservative Republicans will decide the nominee. If you're a Republican in a Democratic district, you have no say so in who your representative is, so there a sense that we're depriving the people of the right to cast a meaningful vote."

Reducing the number of initiatives

Although the voters may feel shunned at the ballot box, there's also the problem of having too many issues on the table. In a typical year in California, voters must make up to 50 or more decisions when voting.

"We vote every month it seems," says Stern. "We vote on everybody. Who really knows the difference between the controller and the treasurer? Why do we vote on all these? In many states, the governor selects these people."

This may be another area where reform is needed, Stern says, but "the voters would never go for it."

His explanation is that if government were to reduce the amount of initiatives, California voters might interpret this as government taking away their right to vote.

Furthermore, Stern says a number of legislators would oppose this idea because of fear that reducing the number of initiatives may lead voters to start paying closer attention to what's going on. In turn, the public may decide to vote their legislators out of office. In other words, mire the voter in a sea of initiatives, and the legislator has a better chance of staying in office once he or
she is there.

Campaign finance reform

Better campaign finance reform is an issue often mentioned when talking about accountability. Proponents say that if voters were to see reform in this area, it could open another door to accountability and transparency in government.

They also contend that reforming campaign finance practices could increase competition because incumbents would have less backing from special interest groups.

However, finance reform itself doesn't "make the voters wake up and all of a sudden trust their representative," says Stern. "It's just a step in the right direction."

"Certainly in California, the size of districts makes it incredibly expensive to run for office,"
says Umberg. "The public has become cynical because running for a Senate seat is obscenely
expensive; running for legislative office is merely grotesquely expensive."

But the solution is not to limit individual contributions; that creates other methods of campaign financing, like independent expenditure campaigns, to come in and influence the voters, says Umberg. "The Supreme Court will take up this issue of spending limits and better ways to limit the influence of money in elections."

Accountability does not equal confidence

For all the reform ideas, for all the ways in which voters blame government for being unresponsive to their needs, and for all the blame that legislators put on voters for being apathetic, here's the kicker: Any initiative that aims to create more government accountability doesn't necessarily translate into more confidence from the voting pubic.

"You have to look at the other side of the coin," says Stern. "The only thing accountability does is make officials better. The public knows more, and that could mean they know a lot more negative things. The only makes legislators better because they know they're being watched."

In other words, transparency and accountability lead voters to see just exactly what their legislators are up to, good or bad. Confidence, says Stern, has nothing to do with it.

"Having looked back on reforms of the past, it clearly does not increase voter confidence," says Stern. "That only comes when people perform well. It has to do with the government's skills, and response to disaster, and decisiveness."

It takes a catastrophe to raise awareness

To the extent to which voter apathy exists, "it's always a problem," says Umberg. "Our districts are becoming huge; we have legislators representing 400,000-plus people, and that leads to people not seeing the relationship between state government and their daily lives."

The consequence: Californians don't pay as close attention to the real issues, and "the media focus on negative stories make voters even more cynical than they would already be," says Umberg.

But how do you change the growing disconnect? "That's the $64,000 dollar question," says Stern.

"When the economy is going great, when there's no war, they feel much better," he says. "When government responds to crises, voters pay attention. They feel confident on this level more than on the level of reform measures."

Stern attests that voters don't generally care about government, because they have more important things to care about, like their kids, health care and their commutes—the things that affect them every day.

"What happens," says Umberg, "is that the public becomes aware of how important the government is whenever there is a crisis. Perhaps California can learn from what happened in the Gulf Coast, that when there is a need, the government must provide a safety net. Hopefully it won't require a catastrophe before Californians recognize the significance of what goes on in government."

About Kennedy Smith

Kennedy Smith is a business writer living in Portland, Oregon.