California Forum

Another View: Splitting California addresses representative government

Harvey Swenson
Harvey Swenson

Many who read Tim Holt’s “Plan to split state needs a fair hearing” (Viewpoints, Nov. 2) will dismiss him as a crackpot hick from someplace they’ve never heard of with a problem they don’t care about. But when Holt points out that each California state senator represents nearly a million people, he touches the sore spot of our representative government.

Excepting for the addition of four U.S. senators from Hawaii and Alaska, the number of seats in Congress and our state Legislature has remained the same since 1912, when the U.S. population was 95.3 million – less than a third of the current 317 million – and California’s population was perhaps a tenth of the current 38.2 million. As late as 1950, the state had only a little more than 10 million people.

Now, each Assembly member represents about 475,000 citizens and each U.S. House of Representatives member 723,000 – on average, of course. As California’s senators each represent all its citizens, that’s 38 million apiece. Sacramento County supervisors represent about 180,000 people each.

These daunting numbers mean that most of us will not speak in person with any of our state or federal representatives in our lifetimes. Our representatives will continue to rely on lobbyists, friends and wealthy, connected donors for input and will continue to use robocalls, broadcast emails, mailings and press conferences – all of which conveniently serve as re-election tools – to let voters know how wonderful they are.

Technology has not been and will not be the answer, except that it allows representatives to appear to respond to constituents via mass email. It is simply not possible for anyone to read enough written information or to listen to enough people to adequately understand and represent the views of ordinary people. Enlarging staffs does not solve the problem; their filtering often involves their own ignorance or bias.

In the entire world, there is only one country, India, with a higher ratio for the lower legislative house than the United States. Even China’s rubber-stamp version and Russia’s Duma are much lower. Nobody else is even close, and the ratios for the great majority of nations are even far below California’s.

Split the state? Maybe, but another approach is to increase the number of legislators while keeping costs down by cutting staff, keeping them in their districts and spending less time – perhaps just six to eight weeks a year – in the Capitol.

Harvey Swenson is a retired resident of the Arden-Arcade area.