[EM] California Dreamin', Take 4

Dr.Ernie Prabhakar drernie at radicalcentrism.org
Mon Sep 13 21:22:32 PDT 2004

Hi all,

So, I've been trying to figure out how to get people who don't  
particularly care about election reform to actually think through the  
issues involved.   This is what I came up with; the goal is to try to  
express the basic ideas and motivation without getting bogged down in  

I welcome your feedback -- especially on the technical "NOTES" at the  

Ernie P.

Reengineering California's Legislature
An Inquiry in the Spirit of James Madison

Draft 3, 9/13/2004, Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.  
<DrErnie at RadicalCentrism.org>


J:	Good morning, Governor. Thank you for taking the time to see me.

A:	The honor is mine, Mr. President. I have long admired your work on  
the U.S. Constitution, especially the Federalist papers.

J:	You are very kind, Governor, though that was a long time ago.  
However, the Constitution is in fact what I wanted to talk to you  
about. I fear I owe you an apology.

A:	What, for that business about not allowing naturalized citizens to  
run for President? Please, don't worry about it. I'm busy enough now  
just running the state of California.

J:	Oh, I quite agree. In fact, I really wanted to talk to you about the  
California constitution, which in this case borrowed some unfortunate  
ideas from ours. In particular, I believe you're having some problems  
with the state legislature.

A:	You mean those girly-men politicians who are so indebted to special  
interests that they refuse to act on behalf of the people?

J:	Um, in a manner of speaking, yes. But, really, you shouldn't talk  
about them like that. In fact, depending on how you look at it, it  
really isn't their fault. It is, well, mine.

A:	Yours? You must be kidding, Mr. President. You are, er, were one of  
the greatest statesmen of all time. If we had people like you in the  
legislature, we wouldn't be having these problems.

J:	That's very kind of you to say, Governor, but I'm afraid you're  
wrong. Oh, sure, I like to think I'd do a little better than the people  
you have in there now. But frankly, we had a pretty low opinion of  
state legislatures in my day, too. Human nature hasn't really changed  
all that much in two hundred years, after all. But rather that relying  
on unnatural levels of nobility, we tried to design a system that would  
force human nature to act in the best interest of all the people.

A:	And if I may say so, you did a remarkable job. The United States has  
become a beacon of hope to all the world, a shining city on a hill, a  
golden dream by the...

J:	Yes, yes, I know, and thank you. Certainly we are all very proud of  
the Constitution, especially considering how little we knew of  
practical democracy at the time. But there is one fundamental  
development we failed to foresee, which is arguably at the root of your  
problems in California. Do you know what that is?


A:	Let me guess. Political parties?

J:	Precisely. My theory of large-scale republican government was based  
on the idea of multiple independent factions, whose representatives  
would only agree about topics of genuine benefit to the entire country.  
We failed to predict that factions would coalesce into parties,  
especially two dominant parties.

A:	But how could you have known? And aren't two parties inevitable, no  
matter what?

J:	The answer to both your questions lies in a result known as  
Duverger's Law.

A:	Divergers Law?

J:	No, though that might also be a good name. Claude Duverger  
discovered this principle around the 1950's. Our voting system -- where  
every citizen casts one vote per office, and the candidates with the  
most votes wins -- is called plurality voting It means someone can win  
without majority support if there are more than two parties. This  
inevitably leads to the dominance of two parties at a time, because of  
the risk of "spoiling" the vote. True, third parties can have an  
impact, and occasionally replace one of the major parties, but such  
events are relatively rare.

A:	But why is that a problem? Surely it is a good thing to have two  
opposing parties to keep each other honest.

J:	Sure, the two-party system has a number of advantages, especially  
compared to a one-party system! But when there's only two parties, its  
easy for them to get complacent, and collude (intentionally or  
unintentionally) in ways that aren't always in the best interest of the  

A:	Like gerrymandering.

J:	Exactly. As you are well aware, partisan redistricting reduces  
competition and decreases voting power. That was the first mistake we  
made -- putting redistricting in the hand of the legislature.  
Objective, community-based districts -- by either a non-partisan  
judicial panel or an open computer algorithm -- are the first obvious  
change you need to make.

A:	Absolutely. Its just a question of timing.

J:	Sure, I understand. These things take time. But while that's perhaps  
the most obvious mistake, its not the only, or even most important,  
mistake you'll have to fix.

A:	Then what is?


J:	The fact that we built our entire system explicitly around plurality  
voting, and thus implicitly around the assumption that there are only  
two choices. The world is more complicated than that, and California of  
all places needs a system that reflects, embraces, and channels that  

A:	You're absolutely right. California is the most diverse society in  
human history. Politics as usual has got to go. We can't have a  
polarized government with the right-wing nut jobs on one side, and the  
left-wing weenies on the other, and nobody in the middle except me. But  
how can a better voting system change that?

J:	By making it easier for good ideas to bubble up through the system,  
and harder for bad ideas to get approved. You see, every decision  
making system is optimized for certain kinds of problems and solutions.  
Plurality voting implicitly assumes duality -- that there's only two  
sides to every problem. We need a system that allows more than that.

A:	So, what would that look like?

J:	Well, the simplest improvement over plurality is something often  
called ranked-choice voting. Rather than just picking a single favorite  
candidate, voters can rank candidates in order of preference.

A:	Ah, that way they aren't forced to pick the lesser of two evils.  
They can always vote for their favorite, but still help their  
second-favorite defeat their least favorite. It also means  
third-parties can run without becoming spoilers.

J:	Correct.  Even better, that same technique can be extended to entire  
legislatures using a concept known as proportional representation.   
Instead of one seat per district, you can five, ten, or even more.   
Voters rank as many candidates as they care about, with surplus votes  
being redistributed further down the ballot.

A:	Sounds simple to vote, but hard to count.  What is the impact of all  

J:	Basically, it means that voters get candidates who maximize their  
viewpoint.  So, if in a district with ten seats we had, say:
	44% voted Democrat
	26% voted Republican
	24% voted Libertarian with Republican second
	6% voted Green who voted Democrat second
then the delegation would have 5 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 2  

A:	Ah!  That way the legislature mirrors the actual population, without  
the distortion caused by gerrymandering.  Would you do the whole  
legislature that way?


J:	Actually, no. Despite its many virtues, the problem with  
proportional representation is that it encourages candidates to focus  
only on their ideological base.  Plus, it means that a splinter party  
can become the swing vote needed to form a majority, giving them too  
much power instead of too little.

A:	So, do you have a clever solution to that?

J:	Actually, I would recommend you just reuse the existing solution of  
a bicameral legislature. Have the Assembly elected by proportional  
districts with say, seven seats apiece.  But, have Senators elected  
from single-winner districts, again using  ranked-choice voting. That  
way, the Assembly promotes diversity, whereas the Senate encourages  
moderation -- pretty much the way we originally intended.

A:	I get it. But won't having geographical districts at all still allow  
for gerrymandering?

J:	Right, that's why you need to first need a party-neutral  
redistricting scheme.

A:	Got it. Hasta la vista, gerry!

J:	Um, yes. However, I'd also like to recommend two more reforms, if  
you don't mind

A:	I would be honored to hear them, especially since you've come all  
this way.

J:	First, change the way legislatives offices -- speakers, committees,  
etc. -- are chosen.

A:	Oh, definitely.   The current system is all about trading favors  
behind closed doors.

J:	Right.  Instead of caucuses by the majority party, use ranked-choice  
voting across the entire house.   Committees would similarly be filled  
proportionally, which is especially useful when there's more than two  

A:	Excellent! That way there's a better chance of getting members who  
are actually committed to doing the job for everyone, not just amassing  
pork for themselves.

J:	Exactly.  Again, the goal is the same as my original theory of  
factions.   Create incentives for groups to focus on their own  
interests individually, but come together in ways that act in the best  
interests of the entire state.

A:	So, the system you propose will solve that?

J:	Well, it will help, but I have an even more radical solution  if  
you're open it.

A:	Bring it on!


J:	One reason for complexity and pork in legislation is the fact that  
everything gets written five times: twice for each House's committee,  
twice more for each full House, and one last time in Conference. This  
gives lots of room for shady dealing.

A:	Tell me about it. Should we then go back to a single House, like a  

J:	That's one option, but it would disrupt the balance we discussed  
earlier.  Instead, why not treat legislation like a product whose  
quality we want to maximize. Do you know what the most important factor  
is in product quality?

A:	Independent testing?

J:	Right!   Based on past experience, the full house is clearly not  
independent enough to discipline its own committees.  Instead, I  
propose we give the Assembly the sole power to write legislation, but  
the Senate the sole power to edit it.  That way the senior Senate acts  
as a check on the passions of the lower house, as we intended.

A:	Interesting.  How would that work?

J:	During debates on a bill, there are often good amendments which fail  
to get approved by a majority, as well as bad amendments that get  
approved due to log-rolling between special interests.

A:	Tell me about it!

J:	But now, the Assembly is required to pass along all relevant  
amendments as well as the bill. The Senate would collect the amendments  
into some reasonable sets of options -- like buying a new car -- then  
pick the best using ranked-choice voting.  Which they'd send directly  
along to you -- no conference committee needed!

A:	Amazing! But won't that give the Senate too much power?

J:	Not at all.   The Senate can never write a single line of  
legislation; they can only work with ideas that originated in the  
Assembly.  It actually gives them less work, but more responsibility,  
which might attract more experienced part-time legislators.

A:	Wow, that's pretty cool.   The Assembly can focus on being creative  
in generating ideas, while the Senate focuses on being wise in making  

J:	Right.  In fact, some scientists argue that this is how our brains  
work -- the right-side generates ideas, while the left side evaluates  


A:	Well, my left side is going to be quite busy for a while evaluating  
all these ideas!

J:	Sorry to dump so much on you at once, but I felt it was the least I  
could do after saddling you with that problem in the first place.

A:	Please, no apology necessary. You did the best you could with what  
you had. I can see how these improvements can break the two-party  
stranglehold, and encourage better decisions. Why haven't we done this  

J:	Well, frankly, my fellow Founding Fathers and I are part of the  
problem. We are held in so much esteem that people distrust their  
ability to improve on our work. That's why I want you to understand why  
we did what we did, and where and how we went wrong --  so you can do  
better without losing anything important.

A:	Its' a tall order, but I'm willing to try.

J:	Good man.  Now, do you remember everything I told you?

A:	Let me see.  According to you, California needs:

	* Objective, non-partisan redistricting
	* Ranked-choice voting for statewide offices and Senators
	* Proportional representation for the Assembly
	* Open elections for legislative offices
	* Separate roles, where the Assembly writes and Senate edits

J:	That's it exactly.  Again, this is just some ideas I've had over the  
last couple centuries.  Use them as a starting point, but don't be  
afraid to think on your own.

A:	Me, afraid? Ha!

J:	That's the spirit, Governor.  Just don't disappoint me, or --- I'll  
be back!

A:	Hey, that's my line!


The characters in this story, despite their names, are completely  
fictitious. Their words and beliefs are mine. Any similarity with other  
persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.
September 14th, 2004


plurality voting is the most common form of voting in democratic  
countries; sometimes known as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP).  Each voter  
can only pick a single candidate, meaning that a candidate can win with  
a plurality rather than a true majority if there are more than two  
parties.   The fact that voting for a third-party can cause your  
second-choice to lose leads to the "spoiler" effect form third-parties,  
sometimes called the "lesser of two evils" problem.

ranked-choice voting is the most common alternative to plurality, and  
sometimes called rank-order voting or preference voting. Rather than  
picking a single favorite, voters rank the various candidates in order  
of preference.The most popular implementation of ranked-choice is  
called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).  However, most theorists recommend  
an alternate system called Majority Voting (MV) which unlike IRV  
satisfies the "Condorcet criterion," which states that the candidate  
which is preferred by the greatest majority over each rival must be  
elected.  To use a sports analogy, IRV is single-elimination while MV  
is round-robin.

proportional representation is a system for allocating seats in a  
legislature or other body according to their level of support in the  
electorate.  The most flexible implementation is known known as Single  
Transferable Vote (STV), and is closely related to IRV. Voters  
rank-order at least as many candidates as there are seats available --  
ideally more.   Candidates with enough first-choice votes automatically  
win.   Surplus votes for those candidates (chosen at random) are  
reallocated to those voters second-choice, and the process repeats  
until all the seats are filled. STV sacrifices a rigid proportionality  
for the flexibility of voting for individual candidates, rather than  
just parties.


The Radical Middle -- the movement I am aligned with

Founding Brothers -- my source for James Madison

Madison's Theory of Factions

Wikipedia -- an open, collaborative encyclopedia
	http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condorcet_method (majority voting)

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