Hard-pressed rural Californians try civil-rights approach

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Do rural residents have a constitutional right to reasonable political representation, or is that reserved only for big-city residents? That question is at the heart of a recent lawsuit that — although unquestionably a long shot — could shake up California’s political map.

The issue garnered fair-minded coverage from the New York Times, which captured the gist of the problem in a spot-on headline: “California’s Far North Deplores ‘Tyranny’ of the Urban Majority.” It covers an issue this writer has reported on for the Spectator: residents in the sparsely populated, yet geographically massive, “north state” have virtually no say over the regulations, taxes, and land-use policies that govern their lives.

As California’s population approaches 40 million people, its level of representation falls to pitiful levels. The number of legislators has remained at 120 since 1862, when the state’s population was about 420,000. In New Hampshire, the average number of people represented by each member of its lower house is under 4,000. In California, it is nearly 500,000, thus making each vote “insignificant unless you are wealthy,” according to the complaint.

As a result, residents in rural counties sit back helplessly as, say, environmental groups impose industry-killing regulations on the timber, fishing, and agricultural industries that are the main sources of rural employment. U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, “who lives on a farm, says California’s urban denizens think of the rural areas as their ‘park,’ and deplores what he describes as trophy legislation to protect animal species,” the Times reported.

Specifically, the lawsuit argues that California’s current system of representation violates the Due Process Clause of U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment “because it denies the opportunity for self-governance… based on wealth and results in less women, blacks, Hispanics, Native American and members of political parties being elected to office than would be expected if the number of representatives was not arbitrary and unfair.”

The petitioners are looking for the courts to toss out the current system of apportionment and “establish statewide legislative districts in California” based on plans the plaintiffs will submit. Even if the argument has legal merit, it’s hard to imagine the courts overturning the California system, given the broad implications for the political system.

Perhaps the effort is just the latest “Hail Mary” attempt to save California from the fruits of its increasingly progressive politics. Democrats run virtually everything here and legislative districts are mostly so lopsided that there’s no chance of changing the Legislature’s partisan makeup. California’s leaders are engaged in a constant campaign to raise taxes and expand government. The latest plan to impose a single-payer health care system on the state was too far out even for this Legislature, but it’s not hard to see where things are going.

So we’re seeing “pie in the sky” ideas, some of which have merit, but few of which have any real chance at success. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper, who sponsored a “Six Californias” initiative that failed to get onto the ballot, is still looking at plans to break up the state into parts. (That has nothing to do with CalExit, which was a plan by lefties to turn California into its own nation, and now revolves around an advisory vote to promote secession.)

There’s also a strong and growing movement to create a breakaway state of Jefferson representing the rural regions that were the subject of the Times article. San Diego-area businessman John Cox still touts a statewide initiative idea to address the representation problem by creating a neighborhood legislature. However, that initiative campaign would need massive funding — and would face the problem of convincing voters to expand the number of legislators a hundredfold.

Legally targeting representation problems, however, is a more doable strategy. For one thing, it doesn’t require the approval of Congress, which might have a tough time embracing the idea of as many as 12 U.S. senators representing the state formerly known as California. For another, activists already are successfully using their muscle to force similar changes at the local level.

The California Voting Rights Act is used to prod cities into adopting district elections by arguing that minority communities have inadequate representation under their current at-large systems. They’ve been successful, and rightly so. Huntington Beach recently vowed to fight a threatened lawsuit over the issue, but many cities from Anaheim to Palmdale have decided to rejigger their electoral systems, given how genuinely unrepresentative they have been.

The preponderance of California cities elect council members to at-large seats, where each council member represents the entire city. Candidates must run citywide races, which means only those that can raise sufficient funds (from unions, developers, environmental groups) have a chance. Often, we find most council members live in one or two small, affluent neighborhoods. Residents in other areas are poorly represented.

As the argument goes, by switching to district elections, cities can improve representation for all their residents, especially those in overlooked communities. Nothing can assure quality representation, of course, but districts may reduce the role of interest groups and give voters a better opportunity to elect a representative from their own neighborhood.

Other ongoing efforts, pushed mainly by civil-rights groups, would expand boards of supervisors, which are the elected bodies representing county residents. Los Angeles County, with its population of 10 million, is represented by only five supervisors. Expanding the number of representatives makes sense regardless of what groups push for it. Why shouldn’t the same concept apply to residents of Yreka, Crescent City or Alturas and not just those in East Los Angeles or El Monte?

“California’s refusal to increase its levels of legislative representation to reflect its exponential population growth,” the lawsuit argues, has led to a situation where “meaningful self-governance is pretty much gone” and where “elections are ‘purchased’ not won by candidates who actually seek to represent the people they are supposed to represent.” They have a great point, but what are the chances anyone in power here will care?


Image by randy andy

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