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The representation gap

Irene Bloemraad, professor of sociology | October 13, 2009

Californians will need to change the rules of the political game to get state politics back on track.  Allowing simple majority voting in the legislature on budgets and taxes is a good start.  Reforming the way we draw the lines around electoral districts could also help.  If political parties had fewer safe seats, they might move to the center to attract moderate voters, and be forced to compromise more.

Beyond the rules of the game, we also have to change and broaden the cast of players — and I don’t just mean who is sitting in Sacramento.  Currently, California has a huge representation gap between those who actually live in the state, and those who vote.

This gap wouldn’t be a problem if those who vote were very similar to those who don’t, but that isn’t the case.  California’s voters are older, richer and whiter than the average resident of the state.  That means that the preferences  voters take to the ballot box might not reflect the opinions or needs of a large segment of the Californian population.

Take just one example: in the 2008 Presidential elections, the US Census Bureau estimates that of all those who voted in California,  60% were non-Hispanic whites, 21% were Latino, 10% were Asian and 8% were black.  But white only made up 42% of the state’s population in 2008, while the proportion of Latinos, Asians and blacks were 37%, 12% and 6% respectively.

The gap is even bigger if we consider the 2006 elections. The 2008 Presidential contest was historic, bringing out many minority voters.  In the 2006 elections, 67% of those who voted were white, but whites only made up 43% of the state’s population.

Why the gap? California’s minorities are younger, so a greater percentage haven’t reached the age to vote.  Some Asian and Latino Californians don’t have US citizenship and can’t vote.    And, like whites who are poorer or have less schooling, minorities in disadvantaged positions are less likely to vote, even when they are eligible.  These obstacles fall especially heavily on the state’s Latino population.

Those who elect California’s politicians might be less interested in public education (their kids are all grown up), less supportive of redistribution (their taxes might go up) and more focused on property values and programs for seniors.  Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case.  Older people, with or without children, might well see public education as an investment in the state and the ability of governments to pay pensions and benefits as they age, but the chance of interest mis-alignment exists.

What can we do? Encourage all citizens to vote, and help those who might face particular problems of access due to language, limited schooling or other barriers.  We could also allow non-citizens to vote.  More than half of US states and territories in the 19th century allowed some non-citizens to vote.  They believed that participating in elections helped immigrants become American.  Non-citizens also pay taxes: sales taxes, income taxes and property taxes, either directly or through their rental payments.  One of the cries of the American independence movement was “no taxation without representation.”  It might be time to return to this idea in the 21st century.

Comments to “The representation gap

  1. The “older, richer and whiter” voters remind me the situation we had recently during elections in my country (I`m from Ukraine). The matter is that people who should really go and vote are already disappointed in their government

  2. Decriminalize, tax and regulate cannabis and industrial hemp. Empirically verifiable science proves that cannabis is non-toxic and that prohibition was originally motivated by corruption, greed and prejudice.

    Our state and federal governments literally spend TENS of BILLIONS of tax dollars every year flying helicopters around the state and developing advanced technologies calculated to obfuscate our 4th Amendment rights, “enforcing” the marijuana laws.
    It is uncontroverted that the consumption of cannabis makes it one of the larges cash crops in our state. The emergence of our medical cannabis laws has already revealed that the taxation and responsible regulation of cannabis would represent billions of dollars in revenue for the state.

    While job losses continue to rise locally and nationally, the number of medical cannabis establishments that have filed articles of incorporation with the state has risen and the number of employees for these organizations is skyrocketing.
    The sale of industrial hemp products is a multi-billion industry. It is legal to sell industrial hemp products in the United States, but illegal to grow hemp here (with very limited exceptions). Consequently, manufacturers must import hemp from abroad, instead of injecting that revenue locally.

    While there is actual medicinal value to cannabis, the unspoken truth is that a significant number of people who use cannabis for medical purposes like cannabis and would prefer to enjoy it without government interference. It is time to have a responsible, adult conversation about cannabis in order to dispel the fear originally propagated by our government in the 1930’s through the 1990’s, which continues (albeit less effectively) today. The decriminalization, taxation and responsible regulation of cannabis represents the emergence of a multi-billion dollar industry which has been kept in the shadows by fear, and puts it front and center as a real economic powerhouse for our economy at a time when our state and our country really needs it.

  3. In order to move forward in California, it seems like we need to resort to the past and implement the more progressive ideas and practices in this country, as Professor Bloemraad argues in her incisive essay. If more that half of U.S. states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote in the 19th century, I don’t see why this can’t happen today? I’m often baffled how those Americans and xenophobes like CNN’s Lou Dobbs—who conveniently blame immigrants for everything that goes wrong in this country—don’t feel any guilt or shame when they benefit directly from those responsible for growing our food, serving us, washing our cars, mowing our lawn, cleaning our homes, raising our kids and, ultimately, taking care of us when we find ourselves in hospitals and long-term care facilities. In my opinion, they can’t have it both ways: if we allow for immigrants, like my parents, to do the dirty and hard work that most Americans refuse to perform due to low-wages and the stigma associated with so-called immigrant jobs, then they should be open to allowing non-citizens to participate at all levels of American society and benefit from everything that comes with it, including the ability to vote and obtain a decent education for themselves and children, along with upward mobility opportunities and universal health care that they’ve earned.

  4. A recent Field Poll shows increasing numbers think the state is on the wrong track. Just 15% of voters hold a positive view about the direction the state is headed, while more than five times as many (78%) believe the state is seriously off on the wrong track.

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