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Stanford center leads discussion on retooling California constitution

A new poll shows California voters want constitutional reform as Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West examines how to redraw the state's governing blueprints. 

L.A. Cicero Ballot

BY ADAM GORLICK

California voters have decided issues ranging from whether gays can marry to how cramped a cage may be for an egg-laying chicken. Nearly every Election Day, they find themselves weighing a slew of unconnected ballot initiatives on things like state spending, social issues and environmental policies.

And many are fed up with the piecemeal approach and sometimes razor-thin margins that end up creating laws, according to a new poll that was commissioned and partly designed by Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West.

The poll, released Wednesday, Oct. 14, coincides with a daylong conference in Sacramento sponsored by the center to address ways of reforming California's constitution. The survey shows that by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin, voters believe the state constitution needs a "fundamental change."

And 51 percent say the constitution should be re-written by a constitutional convention that would bring together hundreds of elected delegates whose ideas would need voter approval. Thirty-nine percent think a Legislature-appointed revision commission should do the job.

If a constitutional convention or revision commission is created, 59 percent said its deliberations should be limited to how the government works and shouldn't include social issues like same-sex marriage. But the respondents had a different take on illegal immigration. When asked if that issue should be included in the panel's reform talks, 48 percent said yes and 42 percent said no.

While most of those polled don't want to give up the power of direct democracy, many don't mind curbing it. When it comes to approving amendments to the state constitution, 56 percent of voters support requiring a two-thirds rather than a majority vote of the people. Only 36 percent do not want to make that change.

Forty-nine percent say they favor changing the state constitution through a deliberative process with proposals submitted to voters as a package, as opposed to 40 percent who would prefer separate initiatives that would be placed on the ballot one at a time.

And 75 percent say if you put an initiative on the ballot, you should be required to specify how you'll pay for the measure you're trying to get passed.

The survey of 1,005 registered voters was conducted by The Field Poll between Sept. 18 and Oct. 5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"There's a huge consensus that we have problems in California," said Thad Kousser, a visiting associate professor of political science at the Bill Lane Center and a Campbell National Fellow at the Hoover Institution. "But there's no consensus on a particular solution. We are seeing that people want a supermajority required to pass constitutional amendments through the initiative process. They don't want something like gay marriage passed by a 51 to 49 percent vote. And they want to spell out the funding sources behind what they're being asked to vote for."

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 8 – a measure banning gay marriage – by 52 percent. 

The poll results will help steer the discussions at Wednesday's convention in Sacramento, called "Getting to Reform: Avenues to Constitutional Change in California."

About 400 lawmakers, policy experts, watchdog groups, academics and interested voters are expected to attend. The conference will examine the history of constitutional reform in California and discuss other states' stabs at re-jiggering their governing blueprints.

The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for California Studies at California State University-Sacramento and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

"We can step back and see what we can contribute as scholars," said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center. "In addition to the polling, there's also an ability to bring in a historical and comparative analysis. We can see what's worked and what hasn't and how those things can help us think about our predicament. Before we rush into one of these one avenues of reform, let's learn about the perils and promise of each of them."

The conference also will discuss findings of an earlier poll conducted by the Bill Lane Center showing Latinos and Asians – so-called "New Californians" who make up the state's fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups – think of political reform differently than whites and blacks who represent "Old Californians."

That survey of 1,000 Californians conducted in August 2008 showed that 64 percent of whites and blacks see the state moving in the wrong direction. But only 59 percent of Latinos and 45 percent of Asian voters shared those negative views. When asked what they thought of the state's initiative process, 43 percent of the Old Californians said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with it, compared with 36 percent of the New Californians who responded.

"It's not an unbridgeable gulf," Kousser said. "It doesn't mean all Californians can't come together. It's a gap we need to be aware of, and it's one of the many things we need to take into consideration as we figure out how to reform the constitution."

Media Contact

Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, agorlick@stanford.edu