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The big constitutional convention question: Who's going to fix California?

We could appoint delegates or elect them, but just randomly selecting them might be the most promising idea.

June 22, 2009|Steven Hill | Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and the author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy." (www.10Steps.net).

Is a constitutional convention in California's future?

With the state's fiscal woes mounting and Sacramento seemingly frozen in place, a group of California leaders has proposed a constitutional convention as a way to fix the Golden State's deeply entrenched structural problems.

Perhaps the most important question about a constitutional convention is: Who would be the delegates charged with designing California 2.0, and how would they be chosen?

There are three basic ways to select such delegates: Appoint them, elect them or randomly select them. Each has its pros and cons. There is no perfect method, maybe only a "least worst" one.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 33 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Constitutional convention: A June 22 Op-Ed article discussed three ways to choose delegates to a proposed convention: appointment, election and random selection. The California Constitution allows only for election; the other two methods would have to be established as part of an initiative that sets up the convention.

APPOINTED DELEGATES: Some people believe this will ensure that the best and brightest are picked.

That sounds nice in theory, but who would do the appointing? The Legislature? The governor? Some have proposed that a bunch of good-government groups should be picked to lock themselves in a room and roll up their sleeves. But who would pick them?

Appointing delegates raises fundamental questions about the independence and legitimacy of the delegates: Will they be seen as beholden to the same political leaders and special interests that are perceived as already controlling the political process?

And there would be no guarantee that appointed delegates would result in a convention as diverse as the state itself. It seems instructive that of the 14 states that automatically call a constitutional convention every 10 or 20 years, none appoint delegates.

ELECTED DELEGATES: Supporters of this method say it would confer legitimacy because the delegates would be democratically selected by voters. And it is a process familiar to voters and the media, especially if it uses existing legislative districts.

But if we elect the delegates just as we elect the Legislature, the results likely would mirror a Legislature widely viewed as a failure.

State Assembly districts are huge, each with more than 450,000 people. Reaching that many voters would require significant financial resources, giving an advantage to candidates who have access to money, organized special interests and political party support.

Sound familiar?

That scenario, along with the fact that elections would not necessarily guarantee that the delegates would reflect the state's diversity, could undermine the convention's credibility.

Another possible -- and perhaps more grass-roots -- election method is to select delegates by county caucuses. Candidates could present themselves to their local constituencies and neighbors.

But what caucuses would do the electing, and who would be the members? The caucus systems in most states have been replaced with primaries because caucuses were notorious for low participation and domination by the most zealous activists. And delegates selected by caucus may not be representative of the entire state.

RANDOM SELECTION: This method might sound the strangest but actually may hold the most promise. It has been used in Canada and elsewhere. A scientific sampling of Californians would be randomly selected from the statewide voter list, like a jury pool.

The Bay Area Council, a group of business leaders, has proposed randomly selecting 400 Californians to create a body of average citizens who could bring their common sense and pragmatism to the problems at hand. Those delegates would be paid to participate for eight months, starting with an intensive two-month education process in which they would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California.

Random selection likely would be the best method for ensuring a truly representative body and for shielding delegates against special-interest influence. And a group made up of "people just like us" brings a sense of grass-roots legitimacy to the process.

Interestingly, a statewide poll commissioned by the New America Foundation in November 2006 found strong support (73%) for a randomly selected deliberative body, and that the public has a lot more trust in such a "citizen body" than in a government-appointed panel or even a panel of independent experts.

So the voters may be out in front of the leaders on this one. After considering all the possibilities, random selection may turn out to be the "least worst" method. California also could try an interesting hybrid, selecting delegates by a combination of random selection, election or appointment.

However the delegates are selected, their proposals would be put on the ballot for voters to decide. One way or another, it would be the voters of California who design California 2.0.

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