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A Donor Democracy, Not a Voter Democracy?

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A Donor Democracy, Not a Voter Democracy?

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California state Sen. Robert Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) holds his head in his hands during a budget negotiating session of the state Senate on Feb. 17, 2009 in Sacramento.

Every single member of the California legislature raised a majority of their campaign funds from outside their own district.

That statistic comes from a new study by MAPLight.org, a Berkeley-based non-profit that specializes in research on the connection between campaign dollars and legislative behavior. MAPLight looked at donations over a three-year period, from January 2007 to March 2010, and found that of the $97.9 million donated to California legislators, at least $77.5 million -- or 79 percent -- came out of district. Another $11.9 million came from inside the lawmaker's district. The geographic origins of another $8.6 million could not be determined by MAPLight.

"Instead of a voter democracy, we have a donor democracy," MAPLight.org's executive director, Daniel Newman, said in a statement accompanying the report.

These findings are at once striking but not surprising -- and they point to problems in California's legislative structure that go beyond the usual concerns about big money in politics.

California has by far the biggest legislative districts in the country -- with nearly 500,000 residents per Assembly District and more than 900,000 residents in each state senate district. Those districts are three times larger than those in the state with the next largest districts (Texas). The result is that it requires an enormous amount of money to mount a campaign in such districts, so lawmakers have a strong incentive to raise money from around the state and the country.

But this makes them even less connected to people they represent than they already are. What's the solution? California needs significantly smaller districts, thought that's politically unattractive because it would mean creating a much larger legislature. The state also should consider replacing its single-member districts with multi-member districts that represent regions. These sorts of districts would match people's understanding of community -- you almost certainly know which region you live but may have little idea whose legislative district you're in -- and permit smart election reforms, as detailed here.

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