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New America Survey Shows Overwhelming Support for California Citizens Assembly

Governor Should Ask Average Citizens, Not Politicians, to Make Elections More Fair
Published:   December 13, 2006

Contact: Steven Hill (415-6655044) or David Lesher (916-448-3721)

The poll analysis, survey questions and results are available for download in PDF format.

SACRAMENTO, CA – As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls for more competition in elections, a survey commissioned by the New America Foundation finds that nearly three-quarters of California voters would like to see the governor and the Legislature create a citizen’s panel to explore ideas for making the state’s election process more fair and competitive. If lawmakers did not convene the panel, two-thirds said they would vote for an initiative to create one.

The findings identified overwhelming demand for better elections, as the governor and other leaders have sought to achieve through an independent redistricting proposal. Nearly 70% of respondents said they are unsatisfied with the quality of candidates on the ballot and they "often feel [they] are voting for the lesser of two evils." More than three out of four voters also said the system favors Democrat and Republican candidates and is unfair to independents or minor party candidates. And nearly 60% said the system needs improvement and that government would perform better if a wider variety of candidates were elected.

But the poll also suggests that voters don’t trust politicians to set the rules for their own elections and they are much more confident in citizen-based solutions. About 70% of the poll respondents said they would be more likely to support the recommendations of an average citizens panel as opposed to government or political leaders. Just 10% were more likely to support government recommendations. Voters also were more likely to support a recommendation from an average citizens panel than one composed of independent experts.

"The biggest problem for political reform may not be the message, but the messenger. People don't trust politicians to design their own election system," said Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program at New America Foundation, which sponsored the survey. "The poll findings suggest a highly popular method for improving California’s electoral system and creating a government with a wider variety of lawmakers and more public confidence," Hill said.

The support for citizen recommendations was also reflected in the reaction to a citizen-based reform model that was used recently in British Columbia (Canada). Nearly 73% of respondents said California should repeat the British Columbia model, where 160 voters were randomly selected to participate in a year-long evaluation of their democracy. At the conclusion, the recommendations of the panel – known as a Citizens Assembly – were placed on the ballot for all voters to decide.

Under the Citizens Assembly model, average California voters could recommend improvements to the state’s election process, possibly including an independent redistricting commission, open primaries, campaign finance reform or alternative election methods. The survey found a majority of voters across the state already support two alternative election methods – Instant Runoff Voting or Proportional Voting.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) has been used in San Francisco to elect local offices since 2004. Under the plan, voters are allowed to rank their first, second and third choices for each office. The second and third choice rankings are used to elect majority winners in a single election if no candidate receives more than 50% (a majority) of the first choice rankings. The idea is designed to encourage a wider variety of viable candidates, discourage negative campaigning and save taxpayer money by eliminating traditional runoff elections. On Nov. 7, Oakland voters overwhelming passed Instant Runoff Voting with 69% of the vote, and Davis voters passed it with 55%.

Nearly 52% of the poll respondents liked the idea of ranking their choices for elected office. Support for the idea increased to 59% if voters thought it would discourage negative campaigns and to 70% if it would save taxpayer money.

A similar majority in the poll supported Proportional Voting, which also uses ranked choices as well as multiple seat districts to help elect a wider variety of candidates and give voters more viable choices on election day.

The survey was commissioned by New America Foundation and conducted by the Survey and Policy Research Institute in San Jose. It interviewed a random sample of 600 registered California voters who had cast ballots in at least one of the last four elections or who were newly registered to vote. These voters are referred to as active voters. The Surveys were conducted Nov. 27-30 in English and Spanish by EMH Opinions of Sacramento. The statistical margin of error for the survey, at the 95% confidence level, is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The poll analysis, survey questions and results are available for download in PDF format.

About the New America Foundation:

The New America Foundation, based in Sacramento and Washington, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute that aims to bring new voices and ideas into the policy debate. With support from the James Irvine Foundation, the Political Reform Program aims to identify and develop the best opportunities for political and electoral reform, educate opinion leaders and the public about electoral alternatives, and encourage the formation of a broad-based coalition for reform.

More information about the poll and about Instant Runoff Voting, Proportional Voting and Citizens Assembly can be found at www.newamerica.net/politicalreform.