California is too large to be governed effectively and that splitting it up would result in “better decision making and real solutions closer to home.” At least, that is the opinion of Tim Draper, a wealthy venture capitalist, who has spent years arguing that the Golden State would be better off as several smaller states. While he got enough signatures to put his initiative before voters in 2018, the plan would face a range of daunting legal and political hurdles—even if the proposal passed (National Public Radio, 2018).
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) to block Draper’s measure from getting to a vote, the state Supreme Court agreed (at least for the time being) that the proposal shouldn’t be on the ballot, as “significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition’s validity.”
The recent review of the State of Local Democracy in the United States (July 2018) concurs with Mr. Draper’s observation that California is quite centralized. Based on the study’s four indicators of local democracy, California might be considered one of the most—if not, the most—centralized state in the country, ranking 49th with regard to average local government jurisdiction population size; 33rd with respect to local government board size; 50th in terms of local electoral representation; and 45th in terms of the percent of local governing board members that is elected at-large.
For instance, counties in California on average have close to 700,000 residents, whereas an average county in the United States only has around 100,000 residents. This large jurisdiction size notwithstanding, county governments in California are governed by a board of five supervisors. In contrast, county governments in the State of New York–for example–have an average county council or assembly with 17 members, ensuring much greater local representation.
As a result of its local government structure and the way local governments are governed, Californians seem to have only limited voice over local decisions: on average, each local government representative in California represents 45,033 local residents. By comparison, the national average level of electoral representation is one local elected representative per 6,611 residents.
Although the analysis agrees with the finding that California is highly centralized, the analysis of local democracy does not necessarily concur that splitting the state in three is the best way to improve sub-national decision-making and to ensure that solutions are found closer to home. In fact, the analysis suggests that many states have sought to achieve these objectives by pursuing more effective decentralization within the state.
In line with the experiences of other states, different strategies may be pursued in order to more effectively empower Californians over public sector decision-making within their state, including by (i) pursuing a local government structure that places local governments closer to the people; (ii) increasing the size of local government boards, thereby giving local residents greater voice and ensuring more inclusive local deliberation and decision-making; and (iii) pursuing more representative electoral systems at the local level.
The Local Democracy Initiative advocates for, and supports, more effective decentralization in the United States. The Initiative’s mission is to strengthen federalism and local democracy by promoting representative democratic systems, strengthening participatory and inclusive governance, and supporting effective multi-level governance arrangements that improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively.