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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.