Steve Woolpert is professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California.
Is California too big to govern? In our state’s history, there have been more than 200 (unsuccessful) attempts to divide California into two or three smaller states. Their advocates have claimed that the governments of smaller, more homogeneous states would be more responsive to the people they represent.
But there’s a better way to bring our government closer to the people: enlarge the state legislature. California has a population of 39.5 million, but a legislature that is the same size as it was in 1850, when it had fewer than 100,000 residents. That means each of California’s 40 state senators now represents 987,500 people, which is more than the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota. (Their populations are divided into senatorial districts ranging in number from 20 to 47.)
The California Assembly has eighty seats, twice as many as the Senate. But that’s still nearly half a million people per assembly district. By comparison, New York’s House of Representatives has 150 members, each representing roughly 130,000 people; New Hampshire has a whopping 400 seats in its House of Representatives—that’s just over 3,000 people per district. Looking abroad, Japan’s lower legislative chamber has fewer than 275,000 residents per seat, and Britain’s House of Commons has 650 seats—or nearly one MP per 100,000 residents.
The question is not whether these legislatures govern more effectively than California’s. Rather, the problem is the harm to representative democracy caused by the sheer size of our electoral districts: How can any lawmaker stay in touch with the concerns of nearly 990,000 people? In fact, according to research by Frances E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer, representatives of larger districts are more likely to take political positions at variance with those of their constituents.
Voters in larger districts are also generally less civically engaged. Voter turnout declines when there is less sense of community. Voting groups that are too small to be influential in our current oversized districts could become key players in smaller ones. Campaigns cost less in smaller districts, permitting more aspirants to run. More legislators would mean fewer committee assignments for each, allowing more time to focus on constituent service. Most importantly, an enlarged legislature would more accurately mirror California’s increasingly diverse population.
How large should our legislature be? International research shows that the average size of legislatures is the cube root of the population they represent. This metric would yield 73 Senate districts, with about 541,000 people each, and 147 Assembly districts with about 269,000 residents each.
California’s size is not a problem. In fact, America’s Founders thought bigger was better. James Madison famously explained that larger political communities are less likely to be dominated by any one “faction” because they encompass a wider range of competing interests. According to his view, California’s size is a plus because it encompasses a plethora of interests, from high technology, agriculture, and energy to entertainment, international trade, and finance. And in Federalist #58 Alexander Hamilton and James Madison said the purpose of the census was “to augment the number of representatives” as the population increased.
California is already in the vanguard of many electoral reforms. The Motor Voter law expanded voter registration. The Citizens Redistricting Commission prevents gerrymandering. California has endorsed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would align the Electoral College vote with the popular vote. But expansion of its legislature has so far been overlooked.
Current legislators will likely resist diluting their voting strength by adding additional members. But all it would take to enlarge California’s legislature is a simple majority vote for a ballot proposition. For this to happen, Californians need to spread the word—in their communities, their social networks, and with local leaders—about how underrepresented they are.
In a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents said “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” As a core principle, strengthening representative democracy could provide common ground for Californians who may find themselves polarized on other issues. Enlarging the legislature would bring our representatives closer to California’s voters, more fairly reflect the electorate, and help rebuild trust in our government.