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The recent and current politics of the U.S. state of California are complex and involve a number of entrenched interests. (For historical politics, see Politics of California to 1899).


Political issues

There have been several events, many dubbed "constitutional crises" by their opponents, over the last thirty-two years including:

  • the passage of term limits for the California legislature and elected constitutional officers, which was hotly argued state-wide, and debated in the Supreme Court of California;
  • a test of the ratification process for the Supreme Court, in which a liberal chief justice, Rose Bird, and two liberal associate Justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, were ousted;
  • a full-fledged tax revolt, "Proposition 13," which resulted in the freezing of real estate tax rates at 1% of the property's last sale price (plus a modest 2% maximum annual inflator);
  • a test of the state recall provision, in which Governor Gray Davis was recalled in a 2003 special election.
  • a failure to pass a budget until almost three months after the constitutional deadline (2008).

Northern California's inland areas, the Central Valley, and Southern California (outside Los Angeles County) are Republican areas. Coastal California, including such areas as Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Sacramento are mostly Democratic areas. As most of the population is in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, California as a whole tends to be liberal.

California was a Republican Party stronghold in Presidential elections from the 1950s to 1992. During this period, the Republicans won California in every election except the election of 1964. Jimmy Carter came close to winning the state in 1976. In these years, the GOP regularly nominated Californians as presidential candidates: Richard Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The immigration of Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans and migration of northern liberals, who tend to vote Democratic, and the flight of white, middle and upper-middle class suburbanites out of the state shifted the balance in favor of the Democratic Party.

Among the state's divisive issues are water and water rights, resulting in the California Water Wars. Lacking reliable dry season rainfall, water is limited and available surface sources are extensively developed through dams, canals, and pipelines. The principal water sources are mountain runoff from wet season rains and higher altitude snowpack (70%), wells (limited by salt-water incursion and overuse), and some Colorado River water supplying southern California (strictly limited by treaties with the other western states and Mexico). Waste water reclamation in California is already routine (for irrigation and industrial use). Most water is in the north of the State, while most people are in the south. Water viewed as excess by the south is viewed by the north as environmentally essential for agriculture, fisheries, and wildlife. While the southern electorate has a greater portion of the population it is not as unified in its viewpoint as is that of the north, so ballot propositions such as those promoting a Peripheral Canal to transport water to the south have failed.

Land use is also divisive. High land prices mean that ordinary people keep a large proportion of their net worth in land. This leads them to agitate strongly about issues that can affect the prices of their home or investments. The most vicious local political battles concern local school boards (good local schools substantially raise local housing prices) and local land-use policies. In built-up areas it is extremely difficult to site new airports, dumps, or jails. Many cities routinely employ eminent domain to make land available for development. A multi-city political battle was fought for several years in Orange County concerning the decommissioning of the huge El Toro Marine airbase. Orange County needs a new airport (pilot unions voted the existing airport, John Wayne, the least safe in the U.S.), but the noise could reduce land prices throughout the southern part of the county, including wealthy, politically-powerful Irvine.

Gun control is another divisive issue. In the cities, California has one of the U.S.'s most serious gang problems, and in some farming regions, some of the highest murder rates. The state also contains many individuals who desire to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves, their families, and property. The legislature has passed restrictive gun control laws. Private purchase of "assault" weapons (generally, semi-automatic rifles that look like military rifles) is a felony. The law does not, however, prohibit sales of semi-automatic hunting-style civilian weapons, leading many to question the effectiveness of the cosmetic distinction. Pistols may be purchased and kept in one's home or place of business, but it is illegal to carry weapons or ammunition outside these areas without a concealed weapons permit, except in a locked area (car trunk) to licensed practice ranges or other legitimate uses (hunting, repair, collection, etc.) Open carry of an unloaded firearm in some areas is legal but very uncommon due to the confusing web of state and federal laws, such as the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which makes it a felony to carry a gun within 1000 feet of a school, even without malicious intent. Except in a handful of rural counties, most people find it impossible to get concealed weapons permits since they are issued at the discretion of the local law enforcement officials. California is not a "shall issue" state for concealed weapons permits. Some counties are virtually "shall issue" while others are in practice "no issue", leading to the peculiar situation of rural residents being able to easily acquire permits that are valid throughout the state, allowing them to carry their handguns into areas where the residents cannot.

Bi-partisan gerrymandering

A gerrymandered congressional district, the 11th CD of CA, drawn to favor Republican Richard Pombo. While the Danville area is a traditional Republican stronghold, Morgan Hill is not, and it was added to obtain the proper population numbers for the 11th after Livermore was assigned to the 10th at the behest of the incumbent Democrat, since it contains the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (located near the "580" shield) and she sat in the House Energy Committee. The 10th CD is immediately north of the 11 in Contra Costa and Solano Counties See text below and the California's 11th congressional district election, 2006 for an unexpected result that overcame this gerrymander.
Carved out with the aid of a computer, this congressional district is a product of California's incumbent gerrymandering. This is the district of Democrat Grace Napolitano, who ran unopposed in 2004.

After the 2000 year census, the legislature was obliged to set new district boundaries, both for the state Assembly and Senate and for federal congressional districts (CDs). The Republican and Democratic parties came to an agreement to gerrymander the boundaries. It was mutually decided that the status quo in terms of balance of power would be preserved. With this goal, districts were assigned to voters in such a way that they were dominated by one or the other party, with few districts that could be considered competitive.

In only a few cases did this require extremely convoluted boundaries, but resulted in preservation of existing strongholds: in the results of the 2004 election, a win by less than 55 percent of the vote was quite rare—only five of eighty Assembly districts, and two of 39 Senate district seats, and no seat was changed in the party of its winner, and neither was any U.S. Congressional seat.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed placing the redistricting process in the hands of retired judges, which was on the November ballot as an initiative in a special election (called by the Governor on June 14, 2005), Proposition 77. The special election was held on November 8, 2005. However, the initiative was defeated, with 59.5% No votes. All initiatives, including those proposed by the Governor's allies and several independent initiatives, failed.

The United States House of Representatives districts are less competitive than the state districts with only three out of 53 congressional districts being won with less than 60 percent majority.

Considering the 10th CD in the San Francisco Bay Area, in earlier elections the almost evenly divided district was a focus of national attention, owing to its balanced electorate with a slight Republican edge in registration and a Republican advantage in electoral participation. The district had been held since its creation in 1990 by a Republican, Congressman Bill Baker, a former State Assembly member, for whom the district was designed. After several weak challenges to the seat by Democrats, the election was hotly contested in 1996 by a newcomer to politics, Ellen Tauscher, a candidate with sufficient funds of her own to be competitive against the incumbent. Receiving a great amount of grassroots support from local Democratic clubs and votes from moderate Republican women, her defeat of Congressman Baker was considered a great victory for what many consider a "middle of the road" Democrat. Her redrawn district is now "safe" (she won reelection with 75.6 percent of the vote in 2002) and subsequent full-term congressional elections drew no national attention to California.

As desired by the two major parties, in the 2004 elections there was no change of political party in any of the district-elected offices at either the State or Federal level - no member of the State Assembly, State Senator, or U. S. Representative was not of the same party as their predecessor.

Despite the supposed uncertainty for Republican prospects of dominance in the U.S. Congress in the November 2006 elections, no California seats in the House of Representatives were considered to be "in play" by national analysts within several months of the election, although a few Republican-held seats offered at least improved prospects for Democrats during this cycle. Republican Representatives Richard Pombo (11th CA) and John Doolittle (4th CA) each hosted President Bush in October 2006 for fundraisers, a rare event in California (and also rare for Bush in this election cycle) that may have been indicative of perceived insecurities in these seats (these Representatives had strongly supported the Bush Administration).

In an unexpected turn of the 2006 elections in California, Democrat Jerry McNerney, although never having held an elective office, defeated incumbent Republican Richard Pombo, 53% to 47%. In 2004 the same paring resulted in 62.5% for Pombo. There has been some demographic change in the district in the Pleasanton area, but not sufficient in itself to account for the difference, and the victory is considered by many (given the gerrymander of the district) to be an overwhelming repudiation both of President George W. Bush and of many of the stands taken by Pombo, particularly concerning environmental matters. This district was the sole exception, as none of the remaining 99 federal and state district legislative elections involved a change of party.

Official California preliminary 2006 election returns are available at

A California constitutional amendment [1] to be presented to the electorate and designed to encourage competitive districts (but with significant loopholes included) was passed by the California Senate for transmittal to the Assembly on the last possible day for the 2006 election cycle, with Assembly Democratic legislative functionaries claiming that it was not received in time. (Index to news articles, many at no cost but requiring registration.) Although this could have been corrected with little effort by additional legislation, the issue was killed for the 2006 electoral cycle, with some asserting that the death of the bill was not accidental [2].



Negative results for the effective operation of the political process can be seen directly in California's 2008 budget impasse,[1] extending for 76 days since June 1, with an agreement announced September 15.[2] The high turnover due to term limits combined with "safe" districts makes it more likely that "hard liners" will be elected (via competitive but narrow primary elections) and that the legislators will lack experience in dealing across party lines in a collegial manner — there is now a complete lack of senior leadership capable of creating and enforcing cross-party compromise.[3]

Repeating budget crisis

California's budget as it stood projected a deficit of over fifteen billion dollars, requiring program cuts and/or additional taxes, as the California budget requires a 2/3s "supermajority" for passage, the Republican minority could stick to their pledge of no additional taxes without consideration of compromise with Democrats who have pledged to not balance the budget solely by reducing services to children, impoverished citizens, or the elderly.[4] As a substantial portion of the budget is fixed by statute, state constitutional amendment, or by Federal court decisions regarding prison health care[5] there was little room for maneuver in reducing expenditures without adversely affecting programs (such as public transportation and education) or for raising taxes. In fact, the "solution" involved no new taxes (but closing of some loopholes), and minor program cuts, with the bulk of the solution being creative accounting methods (such as accelerating revenue collections) that are likely to make the problem more severe in 2009 if there is not an exceptional (and unexpected) improvement in the economy. Under a veto threat[6] by Governor Schwarzenegger some modifications were made and California in 2008 achieved a budget, almost three months late,[7] with the structural deficit problems deferred until 2009.

Continuing problems were widly recognized in late 2008 with predictions that ongoing construction projects could soon be impacted and projected deficits of up to $42 billion over the next 18 months.[8] The state is projected to exhaust its supply of ready money in mid February, 2009.[9] Tentative agreements were obtained for a balanced budget in July 2009, achieved in part by "borrowing" some six billion dollars from county and city governments, an action further postponing a significant portion of the problem while likely having a severe and impact upon public safety, health, and social services. Lawsuits by the local governments are expected upon budget approval. The solution includes the continued issuing IOUs to vendors at least until October 2009 and reducing state employee's working hours and salary by 15 percent.[10] The Governor's proposal to release some 27,000 prisoners has aroused opposition[11] Since some of the term limited legislators were expecting to run for higher office, the budget of July 2009 (for fiscal year 2010) was divided into 30 bills, allowing candidates to vote no on selected bills so that a yes vote could not be used against them in later primary contests.

Little effect upon legislators

With the current safety of legislative districts, any negative consequences of voter dissatisfaction are highly unlikely while the consequences of breaking with party stances (especially for Republicans) could be severe. In 2004, of the four Republicans who broke with party discipline, two retired and two were defeated in Republican primary contests, while in 2008 a Democratic member of the Assembly was reassigned to a much smaller office remote from the Capitol building, as punishment for her abstention from a vote during the 2008 budget impasse.[12] In February, 2009, the Senate Minority leader was removed from his position by the Republican caucus after brokering a deal to settle the budget issue but failing to deliver the one additional Republican vote needed.[13] It was not until February 20, 2009 that a budget agreement was signed by the governor, under a plan that combines spending reductions, additional taxes, and borrowing against state lottery revenues and removing funds from certain mandated programs, with the price of the bargain being various enabling proposals to be presented to the electorate in a May 2009 special election and in 2010. All of the May 2009 propositions (other than one intended to punish the legislators) were overwhelmingly defeated, throwing the budget crisis back to the legislature, with the Governor continuing to oppose any tax or fee increase (fees may be increased by a simple majority vote). The budget again went substantially past its deadline in June 2009 and the Governor proposed the closure of two hundred state parks.[14] Closure of state parks would save little or no money and the proposal was widely believed to be a ploy to cause pain to California's middle class in order to bring constituent pressure upon the Legislature. Park closure is (as of Fall 2009) now seen as unlikely, but a substantial reduction in admission hours for many parks is now probable. Budget deficits are expected continue in 2010, estimated in January at $20 million, with the resolution under the current political structure expected to have severe impacts upon public education, public transport, corrections, and health and welfare.


In a direct response to the conflict of interest inherent in legislative redistricting and the legislature's repeated failures to meet constitutionally required budget deadlines, and after numerous failures of the legislature to present to the voters an amendment to the California Constitution, in 2008 the voters decided on Proposition 11[15] an Initiative. This proposition removes state office redistricting from the legislature and turns it over to a mixed panel of unelected designates (members of the two largest parties in the state, currently the Democratic and Republican Parties, and unaffiliated voters) whose composition is determined by a complex multi-step nomination, selection, and rejection process (Proposition 11 was passed in the November 2008 election). The initiative process, introduced to California in the "trustbusting" reforms of 1911 allows the circulation of petitions to amend the constitution, which if appropriately written (e.g., concerning only a single subject) and receiving the signatures of a sufficient number of registered voters, directs the measure to be placed before the voters. Proposition 11 was largely formatted under the guidance of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Originally written to include congressional districts these were removed from the proposition at the behest of the dominant political parties.

More drastic remedies include recent calls for a California Constitutional Convention, hedged with restraints to prevent runaway changes, including both upfront restraint of topics to be addressed and requirements for final voter approval by the electorate.[16]

Congressional representation

Many leading members of Congress are from California. Among the Democrats are:

  1. Rep. Nancy Pelosi from the 8th District (Speaker of the House)
  2. Rep. George Miller from the 7th district (Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor)
  3. Rep. Henry Waxman from the 30th district (Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce)
  4. Rep. Bob Filner from the 51st district (Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs)
  5. Rep. Howard Berman from the 28th district (Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs)
  6. Senator Barbara Boxer (Chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works)
  7. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Chairwoman of the Select Committee on Intelligence)

Among the Republicans are:

  1. Rep. Buck McKeon from the 25th district (Ranking Member of the Committee on Education and Labor)
  2. Rep. David Dreier from the 26th district (Ranking Member of the Committee on Rules)
  3. Rep. Jerry Lewis from the 41st district (Ranking Member of the Committee on Appropriations)

Political parties

The two major political parties in California that currently have representation in the State Legislature and U.S. Congress are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There are four other parties that qualify for official ballot status: the American Independent Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Peace and Freedom Party. [3]

Of the 17,304,091 California voters registered for the November 4, 2008 general election,

  • 44.4% were Democrats,
  • 31.3% were Republicans,
  • 4.4% were affiliated with other political parties, and
  • 19.9% were ("Decline to State") voters.[17]

Electoral system

Only the Democratic Party and Republican Party currently have representation in the State Legislature. However, for a brief period around the turn of the 21st century, the Green Party elected a member of the State Assembly from the eastern San Francisco Bay Area.

California currently uses the plurality voting system ("First-past-the-post") in its elections, but some municipalities such as San Francisco and Berkeley have opted to use a system of preferential voting, currently used in Australia and Ireland, more popularly known in the United States as instant-runoff voting or ranked choice voting.

Local elections in California at the county and city level are officially non-partisan and political party affiliations are not included on local election ballots.

See also


  1. ^ New York Times: California Embroiled in a Battle Over the Budget
  2. ^ Legislators reach accord on state budget (San Francisco Chronicle)
  3. ^ Capital talks split novices, pros. Downside of term limits: Inexperienced lawmakers struggle to negotiate viable deals. (Contra Costa Times - Bay area news group Morning Report, Sunday July 26, 2009, section AA, page 1)
  4. ^ California Department of Education News Release
  5. ^ Prison overseer: $8 billion for med facilities (San Francisco Chronicle)
  6. ^ Governor says he'll veto budget; override vote looms (San Francisco Chronicle)
  7. ^ Governor cuts, signs long-overdue budget (San Francisco (Chronicle).
  8. ^ Governor blasts GOP for lack of progress on California state budget deficit (Whittier Daily News)
  9. ^ 'We can't pay you yet,' California to tell creditors (, US edition)
  10. ^ State budget deal back on track (San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2009)
  11. ^ Inmate release plan imperils state budget pace (San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 2009)
  12. ^ Central Valley Lawmaker Kicked Out of State Capitol (San Francisco Chronicle)
  13. ^ California senate Republicans oust leader as budget impasse continues (, Wednesday 18 February 2009 18.31 GMT)
  14. ^ State Parks on Chopping Block (Effects upon northern California) (San Francisco Chronicle)
  15. ^ Proposition 11 (,
  16. ^ Repair California Proposing a California Constitutional Convention
  17. ^ "Report of Registration as of October 20, 2008". Retrieved 12-09-2008.  

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