California’s Neighborhood Legislature Initiative

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 this.)

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.

(Note: this article first appeared in The Progress Report)

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