Monday, December 30, 2013

California's Decentralized Voting Proposal

In California, the voters are able to put proposed laws on the ballot if they gather enough signatures. This process is called an “initiative”. The legislature may also place propositions on the ballot, a process called a “referendum”.

One of the ballot propositions for 2014 is “The Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act”, which would decentralize the election of representatives in order to reduce the political power of special interests such as corporations, labor unions, and trial lawyers. This reform would shift political power to the people of California. (For the text of the initiative, see

Like the US Congress, the California legislature has two houses, a Senate with 40 members and an Assembly with 80 members. The population of California is 38 million. The districts for the California Senate now have 950,000 persons, a greater number than for Congressional districts, while about 475,000 people live in each assembly district. It now takes a million dollars to win a California Senate seat.

The Neighborhood initiative would instead create Senate districts of 10,000 persons and Assembly districts of 5000. These neighborhood districts would form a greater association of 100 neighborhood districts within the current districts. The association council would elect a representative to the state legislature, thus keeping the same number of representatives in the state legislature. However, the final approval of a law would require a vote by all the neighborhood district representatives. That vote could be done on an Internet web site, as corporations now do for their elections of board members and propositions.

The Neighborhood Legislature proposition was initiated by John H. Cox, who has been a lawyer, real-estate management executive, and local office holder. The aim is to have the measure on the November 2014 ballot. That will require over 800,000 valid signatures, 8 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election, by May 19. That is a high hurtle, which usually requires several million dollars to pay for signature gatherers. This initiative has already made a splash, with articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other media.

I have been writing for years on reforming democracy with tiny voting districts in a bottom-up structure. Back in 2007, I wrote an article, “Democracy Needs Reforming” (, proposing that the political body be divided into cells of 1000 persons, each with a neighborhood council. A group of these would then elect a broader-area council, and so on up to the national congress or parliament. The state legislature would then only need one house, rather than a bicameral legislature that mimics the US Congress and British parliament. This “cellular democracy” would eliminate the inherent demand for campaign funds of mass democracy.

The Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act would not be quite as thorough a reform as a cellular democracy based on tiny districts, but it has the same basic concepts: smaller voting groups, and bottom-up multi-level representation. This initiative would indeed greatly reduce the demand for campaign funds that are needed in today’s huge California electoral districts.

It will be a great challenge to obtain the needed signatures. It could happen if the media provide editorial support and coverage. At any rate, the fact that this initiative is taking place will go a long ways to publicizing the gross corruption of democracy that is taking place, and the only effective remedy to the inherent dysfunction of mass democracy. Many reforms are needed in today’s governments, reforms in taxation, pensions, environmental protection, transit, criminal law, and economic deprivation. The main reason that useful reforms are not taking place is the subsidy-seeking and reform-blocking induced by mass democracy. The initiative process in California and other states is a way to circumvent the corrupt legislature, but in a large state like California, that process itself requires big money.

It will be interesting to watch the progress of the Neighborhood Legislature initiative, and to watch the special interests jump in with misleading negative ads. If this goes on the ballot and wins, it will be a victory for the people and a defeat for the moneyed special interests.

(This article first appeared in


Blogger Episteme said...

What goal are we trying to achieve?
- If the goal is to stop large businesses from influencing politics, will lobbyist wait until the local/Sacramento elections are complete, and grease the wheels with the winners?
- If the goal is to reduce the cost of the democratic process, we should review why the process costs so much today. Instead of representing the grassroots opinion at a centralized decision board, our elected officials form an opinion based on powerful influences from a very small circle of citizens, non-citizens and legal entities. The established opinion is then fed to the constituents via PR, which costs a lot and needs to be funded.
Members of congress spend more than half of their time raising funds, calling political donors multiple times a year, allegedly the most detested part of their job. They do this even if they run unchallenged in their district, and contribute their donations to the party coffers, which helps underdogs in contested districts. At the end all players (Ivy league lawyers who picked one side or another) get a paycheck financed by the donors who bought into the fear that their favorite party will not win. Hence the two party system, and the publicized horserace we call elections.

If we want to improve the democratic/republican process, and as a society make better decisions than "clean coal", why do we need elected officials? Why do we vote for people, a process which brings out our irrational biases, rather than voting on measures (direct electronic democracy)?
The US constitution does not take advantage of the communication inventions of the past 50 years.
It is very possible today to have a large number informed experts on a given subject (say economics). Membership to this public group would be tied to an online test, and possibly licensing (e.g. a degree)
Before a policy decision, a random subset of these experts are contacted and offered compensation to take time off from work and devote it to decision making. Members who accept the offer join a private video conference to form a group decision, publicized at completion but not before the committee made its recommendation/decision.

7:18 AM  

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