Michael Feinstein | Garcia vs. Smith III: Cause for Reform

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After an incredibly tight race in California’s 25th Congressional District — with only 333 votes (out of 338,943 cast) separating winner Republican Mike Garcia from second-place finisher Democrat Christy Smith — Smith has already filed paperwork to seek the seat again in 2022. 

And why not? Control has gone from Republican to Democrat in November 2018 — and from Democratic to Republican (after a Garcia vs. Smith special election) in May 2020 — and now remains in Republican hands after a virtual tie this past November. 

The losers in this schizophrenia are voters faced with all-or-nothing representation each election, depending upon the swing of a few percentage points (or less) of the vote. This is because California — and the United States — uses outdated winner-take-all, single-seat elections to chose its state and congressional legislators. 

Why do we limit ourselves to only one representative per legislative district? Why isn’t there room for multiple perspectives from the same geographic area? 

There is no reason voters holding meaningfully divergent views can’t receive direct representation from the same area at the same time. All that would be required is for our state and country to join most of the world’s advanced democracies and elect our legislators from multi-seat districts by proportional representation instead. 

Under systems of proportional representation, legislative seats are awarded according to the percentage of the vote each party receives; and political perspectives receive representation in proportion to those views being held among voters. There is already a bill in Congress to bring this about. Called the Fair Representation Act, it would establish multi-seat congressional districts elected by proportional representation in each state. 

This idea has been steadily gaining support, as the unrepresentative nature of single-seat district elections becomes ever more apparent in today’s highly polarized politics. Even the New York Times and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences are calling for replacing the U.S. winner-take-all system with proportional representation. 

Ideally, such a change would be accompanied by an increase in the size of House of Representatives, which has been frozen at 435 members since 1911 (when the country’s population was 94 million, compared to 330 million today.) This stasis in size would shock the Constitution’s framers, who intended for the House to grow along with population. 

The New York Times argues for increasing the number to 593. A larger House would increase per capita representation for all Americans — and make it easier to draw multi-seat districts with enough seats to be truly proportional, both within each district and cumulatively among all districts.

In California, the number of state legislative seats was set in 1879 — when statewide population was 865,000 — but has not been changed since. Today more people live within a single state Senate district than lived in the whole state back then. With only 120 state Assembly and state Senate seats combined, California has the worst per capita representation in the nation.

Having such a small number of seats means highly populous, winner-take-all districts. This makes it very expensive to run for office, limiting who can get elected – and placing enormous power in very few hands. A small Legislature also makes it difficult to reflect California’s rich diversity – political, social, economic and more. It also makes it hard to meet the goals of the California Voting Rights Act, because too few seats leads to inevitable conflicts among traditionally under-represented groups, each trying to get a seat at a table with too few chairs. 

If California had the same per capita representation as it did in 1879, today we’d have a state Legislature of 5,000 members. In 2018, I ran for California secretary of state advocating a 500-seat unicameral state Legislature elected by proportional representation. It’s time for our state Legislature to convene public hearings on the best proportional representation model for our state, and put it on the ballot for a public vote. 

Perhaps the most absurd part of our current system is how people talk about “flipping” a district from “Red to Blue” or “Blue to Red.” What are really getting flipped — or flipped off — are voters who deserve representation every election, not just when they happen to be part of a narrow majority. 

If you live in the Santa Clarita Valley — or in any part our state or our nation — you deserve direct representation in each election by someone who truly represents your views. It’s time we have an electoral system that enables this. 

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica mayor and City Council member, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green candidate for secretary of state.

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