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Friday, February 23, 2024

A Tale of Two Californias: Is it time to finally restructure our state legislature?

California’s rural voters are feeling increasingly left out of the state’s political processes

Take a drive from California’s north to its south, and you’ll realize just how diverse the state really is — geographically, culturally and, yes, even politically.

While extensive population growth and wide scale demographic change have solidified California’s political homogeneity, the state’s far north has remained largely immune to this transformation. The vast, sprawling forestlands of Northern California have persisted as outposts of hardline conservatism amidst a sea of blue. An area of 13 of the state’s northernmost counties was recently dubbed by The New York Times as “California’s Great Red North,” featuring just three percent of the state’s population but over one-fifth of its landmass. California’s other dwindling Republican strongholds, such as the High Desert and the Central Valley, also feature rural communities strung across vast swaths of land.

In a state whose 53-strong congressional delegation features 46 Democrats, nowhere does California feel less like the liberal enclaves of San Francisco or Los Angeles than in the rustic cattle ranches of the Central Valley or in the rural logging communities around Mount Shasta. Given the vastly different cultural identities and economic concerns of these diverse regions, it follows that they would frequently butt heads politically. The problem is that now California’s rural voters feel increasingly left out of the state’s political processes.

Much of this is due to the problematic nature of California’s state legislature. Currently, the state features a bicameral legislature consisting of the California State Assembly, with 80 members, and the California State Senate, with 40 members. Representatives in both bodies are equally spread among the state’s nearly 40 million residents. This means more people are represented by State Senators (931,349) than by California’s 53 members of the United States House of Representatives (704,566 people). California’s lower house, the State Assembly, features just over 465,000 residents per assemblymember. By contrast, the New Hampshire House of Representatives features 400 seats — each member representing just over 3,320 constituents.

Since 1862, California’s bicameral legislature has limited the number of statewide representatives to just 120 people, spread across the state’s two houses. The refusal of state lawmakers to expand limitations on representation has led to the accumulation of political power by heavily populated urban enclaves. Not only has this left rural Californians feeling robbed of a voice, it has also worked to diminish the influence individual voters have upon their representatives. This has led to a state that, despite Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, continues to suffer from mass middle class outmigration, skyrocketing rent and a Gini coefficient on par with many Latin American countries.

Expanding the lower house to reduce the number of constituents represented by each member would give communities greater say in political decision-making, irrespective of geography or ideology. As such, it is a proposal that would likely enjoy a great degree of bipartisan support.

Most controversially, California should also consider restructuring its state Senate system to tie legislators to jurisdictions based upon regions, as opposed to equal populations. A power divide between the two houses would increase ideological diversity in one of the most politically homogeneous states in the country. Additionally, it could help ensure that voices in California’s valuable agricultural and logging industries do not go ignored. It would also give Native American communities, specifically those in the state’s northwest, a bigger say.

California has long been heralded as an image of the country’s future; a diverse, trendsetting culture that spread amongst an assortment of different people. Now it’s time to make sure they all have a seat at the table.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


  1. Originally, Californias legislature was apportioned by geography and by county. But a Supreme Court decision in the 1960’s invalidated that system. In fact, UC Davis was created over the protest of UC administration because the representatives from the rural counties outvoted (and outnumbered) those from the cities to create a University Farm.


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