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So You Say You Want a Constitutional Convention?

New America's Steven Hill had an interesting op-ed in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. California, he said, needs a constitutional convention. Yep. At this point, that's about as controversial as saying Jon and Kate's kids are going to need therapy. The question is how do you structure it? If you appoint the delegates, then who appoints them? The discredited legislature? And if you elect the delegates, then aren't the winners likely to be backed by the same machines and interests as the legislature?

Hill has another idea: random selection.

The Bay Area Council, a group of business leaders, has proposed randomly selecting 400 Californians to create a body of average citizens who could bring their common sense and pragmatism to the problems at hand. Those delegates would be paid to participate for eight months, starting with an intensive two-month education process in which they would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California.

Random selection likely would be the best method for ensuring a truly representative body and for shielding delegates against special-interest influence. And a group made up of "people just like us" brings a sense of grass-roots legitimacy to the process.

Interestingly, a statewide poll commissioned by the New America Foundation in November 2006 found strong support (73%) for a randomly selected deliberative body, and that the public has a lot more trust in such a "citizen body" than in a government-appointed panel or even a panel of independent experts.

This has, I think, some real appeal, although there's obviously the question of who would choose the experts, advisers and so forth. But I might suggest even a fourth alternative. Call it six degrees of constitutional conventions. Identify your 400 randomly selected Californians and ask them to nominate the person they think best equipped to serve at this convention. They, after all, know their communities and social networks better than we do. They know who is civically minded and preternaturally judicious. And then use those people. That gives you the benefits of an insulated selection process but blunts some of the disadvantages of randomness.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 23, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  California  
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My only question is, was the person who suggested this randomly selected to write the op-ed?

Posted by: leoklein | June 23, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

What disadvantages do you see to random selection?

Posted by: albamus | June 23, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Cool idea. But it will only happen if it gets passed as a ballot initiative. Why would those in power voluntarily disband their own power structure?

Posted by: jeirvine | June 23, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, I like your idea. The sad fact is that 23% of Californians are functionally illiterate:

You can't trust that 23% of the population to write a document that would be legally binding on 36 million people. But I agree that you CAN trust those people to know who they can trust to "do the right thing" and do it in an articulate, legally sound, and lasting manner.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | June 23, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I have had oodles of fun watching the whining about how California's system "is broken" and it's never the fault of those in charge. The truth is the system in place requires a 2/3 vote to raise taxes. So, what's wrong with that? And the referendum allows citizens to bypass the legislature when they cannot get an issue on the table.

The problem is those in charge have spent like drunken sailors on every liberal cause that came around the corner and as we all know the laws of economics are suspended for liberals if the cause is 'just' enough.

I must live within my means. What's so awful about asking government to do the same?

Posted by: ElViajero1 | June 23, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The problem is voters requiring the government to establish all kinds of programs without approving any new funding sources to pay for those programs. Bad governance certainly plays a part in most states, but California has a few genuinely unique problems.

Posted by: MosBen | June 23, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

400 random dumbasses? 400 random dumbasses who choose their dumbass drinking buddies?

Yeah, this will work. A whole committee made up of creationists, PETA fanatics and people who can't find Florida on a map.

Posted by: evenadog | June 23, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

"A whole committee made up of creationists, PETA fanatics and people who can't find Florida on a map."

And that's only if they're lucky.

What I'd do, just to initiate the 400, would be to get them together and have them fix transportation in LA. Once they've fixed that minor problem, they'll be able to take on the more daunting challenge of fixing the entire state.

Start out with the small things, that's what I say.

Now, where's my Op-ed?

Posted by: leoklein | June 23, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

The problem with randomly selected people selecting other people is that it may result in a disproportionate number of ideologues, rather than community experts.

Imagine this: people are randomly selected and asked to nominate others. Meanwhile, the conservative TV and radio establishment starts beating the drums for their favored list of candidates. Among the randomly-selected, there will be some listeners to these networks, who decide to go along with the recommendations. You end up with a number of people in the convention who otherwise would never get in the door. (Yes, the same thing could happen among democrats, but I would argue conservatives are generally more willing to go along with what someone they see as an 'authority' recommends.)

Posted by: marshallddb | June 23, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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