How Many Lawmakers Does a Legislature Need?

California has the most people of any state, and yet it doesn't have the country's largest legislature. A ballot measure proposes to change that -- but it's complicated.
by | January 2018

The California legislature isn’t big enough. That seems apparent on its face. Each state senator represents about 930,000 people -- far more than members of the U.S. House do. Those in the state Assembly represent half as many, but that’s still nearly a half-million constituents for each of them to keep track of and speak for.

The idea of expanding the legislature has been kicked around in Sacramento for a long time. “I’ve been hearing the basic idea of increasing the number of seats for the past 10 years,” says Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “There’s no question that California, relative to the rest of the country, has legislative districts that are huge.”

A businessman and gubernatorial candidate named John Cox has spent millions collecting signatures for an initiative that would create what he calls the “Neighborhood Legislature.” State senators would represent 5,000 people, members of the Assembly twice that many. Given California’s size, that means there would be nearly 4,000 state senators and 8,000 Assembly members.

That’s a lot of legislators. And while there’s an argument to be made that lawmakers representing a fraction as many people would be able to pay more attention to voters’ specific concerns, it could also be argued that each individual member would have very little clout and would be hard pressed to pass any legislation at all. Similarly, when it comes to constituent services, the average person would have an easier time getting the attention of a legislator, but that politician, in turn, would have a harder time influencing state agencies.

Cox’s initiative, even if voters approve it in November, won’t actually give them more voices in Sacramento. There would be 100 times as many elected legislators, but there would still be only 40 senators and 80 members of the Assembly actually meeting. That’s because the new legislators would select senators and representatives from among their number to go to the Capitol. There wouldn’t be 12,000 legislators holding sessions at an arena.

Why adding a layer of elected officials to select an elite subgroup of 120 would make the process more representative is puzzling. It’s not clear anyway how many legislators are needed in a state to do the job. There probably is a “sweet spot” -- a point at which legislators are representing the right number of constituents -- says Nathan Monroe, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced. But what exactly is that? The New Hampshire House is the nation’s largest legislative chamber, with 400 members representing 1.3 million people. That doesn’t mean legislators there do a clearly superior job for their constituents than legislators elsewhere who represent several times as many people. “The theory is that it makes it so everybody knows who their state rep is,” says Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “The truth is, nobody knows who their state rep is. They’re completely anonymous.”