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What If Everyday People Ran Los Angeles?

CONNECTING CALIFORNIA - If the crisis in American democracy had a capital, it would be Los Angeles.

And if American democracy is going to be saved, that rescue needs to start in Southern California.

This may come as news to Americans who, when they worry about the nation’s democratic future, obsess about developments in Washington, pronouncements from Mar-a-Lago, or election-related legislation in purple states. But the truth is that it is L.A.—America’s most populous county—that best demonstrates the most fundamental failure of our democracy.

Democracy in this country starts with elected representation, and we Angelenos have less of it than Americans in the other 49 states. Angelenos are often accused of not paying attention to government and politics. But perhaps that’s because our politicians don’t pay attention to us. They are too distant from us to represent us effectively.

The core problem is that American elected bodies have not expanded, even as population has grown. This is true at all levels of government, and especially in Tinseltown.

In the city of Los Angeles, population four million and counting, there are just 15 city councilmembers. That means each councilmember represents 270,000 people, the highest such ratio in the country.

At the county level, Los Angeles is even less democratic, with just five elected supervisors to represent 10.3 million people. Those local districts, with one official per two-million residents—are by far the most populous local jurisdictions in this country, and among the largest anywhere in the world.

At the state level, Angelenos have the misfortune of being Californians, who suffer under the least representative state government in the country. Our state Senate has just 40 seats for nearly 40 million people—giving us the most populous Senate districts in the country. Our Assembly, the lower house, offers just 80 seats, with 500,000 Californians represented per district. That’s nearly three times more people per member than any lower house in the country, and five times the national average.

And if that’s not outrageous enough, look at the federal government. Suffice to say, Californians, with just two senators, have the lowest level of representation in the democratic fraud scheme that is the U.S. Senate. The House of Representatives, by guaranteeing one seat to even small states, gives Wyoming and Vermont residents more than three times the electoral power of Californians. It’s also worth noting that, with San Francisco kid Stephen Breyer’s retirement, there is not a single Californian on the nation’s real ruling body, the unelected U.S. Supreme Court.

This sorry state of democratic representation hurts Angelenos, and Californians, and dangerously undermines our trust in government. In order to get elected in districts of such size and scale, our representatives must pay attention to those who can fund their massive campaigns. Our relative lack of representation thus allows big-money politics to co-opt our interests. And that, in turn, explains why people with less wealth or fewer connections—especially women and people of color—are so badly underrepresented in our governments.

The answer to this problem is straightforward: massively expand the number of our representatives at every level. That way, each elected official would represent a smaller number of people. And creating more positions would open doors for more regular people with more diverse backgrounds and less attachment to political careers to join our governments.

The good news is that there is real momentum for such change, including in Los Angeles. L.A. city attorney Mike Feuer, now running for mayor, has called for doubling the size of the Los Angeles city council—an idea that has been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times.

And at the county level, the new Citizens Redistricting Commission, even as it discharged its duties to draw those five giant supervisorial districts, issued an unsolicited public plea to increase the number of supervisors. There are too few supervisors to truly represent the diversity of Los Angeles, they argued. With more districts, supervisors would be “more responsive to their communities’ needs” and citizens would “have greater opportunities to have their voices heard,” wrote the commission.

At the state level, recent years have seen debate around a proposal to increase the size of the legislature to as many as 10,000. But that idea has been hurt by its association with the failed Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, whose 2018 initiative to expand the legislature narrowly failed to qualify for the ballot.

The momentum for expanding representation has been quietly growing at the federal level, too, and on both sides of the political spectrum. In December, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued The Case for Enlarging the House of Representatives.

The proposal would lift the 1929 cap on the House of 435 representatives and add 150 seats. (California might get 13 new seats under the proposal, and close the gap in representation with smaller states.) Such an increase in House representatives would also increase the number of Electoral College members—mathematically making it more difficult for the loser of the popular vote for president to win the election.

In recent months, I’ve heard people as different as Ace Smith, a top Democratic political strategist who has worked for Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom, and Paul Jacob, a Libertarian-minded activist for term limits and direct democracy, argue for a larger House of Representatives. Lately, I’ve been joining conversations among Californians and other Americans about expanding representation, as part of a national campaign for more democratic representation by the organization Citizens Rising.

 

One crucial lesson: If you want to go big in democratic representation, it’s essential that you think small. Adding a few districts to our city council, or even a few hundred to the House, won’t bring people that much closer to their representatives. Instead, the country needs a real commitment to keeping districts so small—between 30,000 and 50,000—that we actually know our democratic representatives.

Yes, that might give the county board 200 supervisors, and create a House of Representatives of 6,000 people, a huge number of people to gather under one roof and make decisions. But such numbers will allow for more oversight of government, and the pandemic has shown that large legislative bodies can meet and effectively make decisions via digital technologies.

An America with larger city councils and county boards and more legislators would offer many more opportunities for people to serve, and makes money less determinative of who wins elections. Indeed, such larger bodies might be filled not just by elections but also by lot, in the manner of citizen assemblies that are now used around the world to bring everyday people into decisionmaking.

Such changes would make the biggest difference in Los Angeles and in California, where our democracy deficit is largest. So, the next time you hear public officials here talk about the need to save American democracy, please ask them to start by giving us more democracy right here at home.

(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.)