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Outside Cash Takes the Local Out of Elections

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Opinion: Outside Cash Spoils Elections

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Some 80 percent of the money raised by legislative and Congressional candidates in inland Southern California came from sources outside the district, the Press Enterprise recently found.

Which begs the question: why bother with legislative district races?

As Prop Zero readers know by now, your blogger believes California would be better off if it junked its legislative system of single-member legislative districts.

In California, that system makes real, competitive elections impossible.

Almost all districts are guaranteed to end up in the hands of one party or the other. The districts divide communities, and they are at once too big to make real representation possible (California has by far the country's most populous legislative districts) and too small to get serious media scrutiny (because an LA TV station that covers an assembly race is ignoring 95 percent of its audience).

Another reason is that legislative district races aren't really local contests between the candidates, few of whom we're likely to have heard of.

They are regional and statewide contests between parties and the moneyed interests that back each party.

Which is why it's totally unsurprising to learn that most money in legislative districts comes from outside.

All of this argues for a new kind of election system that reflects the reality that legislative elections are a choice between parties.

Instead of single-member districts, divide the state up into between six and eight regional districts, with multiple members (the number in each district would be proportional to the population). And then divide up the representation depending on how many votes each party receives.

In this system, parties would have to offer agendas -- for regions and for the state. Regional media -- and most TV stations and newspapers and radio stations are regional in California -- would have incentives to cover these regional contests, because the scale of the campaign would fit their market.

There would be competition in all parts of the state, even the most heavily Democratic and Republican areas, because each vote a party got would get it that much closer to one additional representative.

And no one would care about where money was from outside or inside a district. Because the election wouldn't be deceptively billed as some kind of local contest.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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