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Civic Engagement – Unsustainable California: The Top 10 Issues Facing the Golden State

Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko / Flickr

In Brief

Major special interests dominate the California policy sphere, barriers block average citizens from their own representatives, and public corruption reduces the public’s trust in officials. Together, these factors extinguish civic engagement among citizens to all of our detriment.


The most vibrant societies exist, in part, because their citizens ensure that they can thrive. Invested citizens express opinions, ask questions, consider the future, decry misdeeds, and call for corrections. Healthy governments should enable their citizens to participate by providing clear pathways to information, and being responsive to citizens’ opinions and questions. Last but not least, governments should be composed of honest and accountable officials. These are incredibly basic tenants of good governance, but yet, it is clear that California and many of its localities fail to adhere to them at even the most basic levels.

California’s larger political system is wrought with inefficiencies that prevent citizens from accessing information they need to engage. Dejected and subordinated, citizens buy into the idea that they have no sense of duty to participate in political activities, which only reinforces their limited capacity to do so. The cycle of civic disengagement is a vicious one.

The state’s political system is absolutely dominated by special interest lobbyists and institutional political big spenders. Average citizens take a backseat to special interest groups such as public employee unions, corporations, and Native American tribes use outsized political spending to exert undue influence on the outcomes of elections and legislative priorities. That imbalance leaves the governance system vulnerable to illegal corruption, technically legal abuses, and misdirected policy priorities. Simply put, California’s political status quo does almost nothing substantial for the vast majority of its key stakeholders – average citizens.

After the system discounts their importance time and time again, it is no wonder that Californians have chosen to disengage from the system. Today, they vote rarely and are typically armed with little information. They report little interest in state policy issues and, moreover, little sense of duty to take an interest. Even in their own local communities, Californians volunteer less than they once did, indicating a sense of disengagement with the systems and people closest to them.

Low Transparency Limits Information

Governmental transparency is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government facilitates civic engagement and allows the general public to make better informed decisions. In a perfect world, governments would make all public documents and information easily accessible. However, in California, this is clearly not the case. Several studies and a plethora of anecdotal evidence rank California and many of its cities near the nation’s bottom in terms of transparency (Table 10a). For example, in a United States Public Interest Research Group study, California received an ‘F’ grade for its online accessibility to state spending data. California’s ‘34/100’ score is the nation’s worst. Additionally, the Sunlight Foundation has given California a ‘D’ grade for their availability of state legislature data. This creates enormous barriers for everyday citizens to simply check where their tax dollars are being spent and how their votes are panning out.

Table 10a: California Ranking on Transparency Measures:




United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG)

Online Access to State Government Spending Data

34/100, F

United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG)

Online Access to City Government Spending Data (Large Cities)

San Francisco: 90/100, A-

San Diego: 69/100, C-

Los Angeles 68/100, C-

Riverside: 54/100, D-

Sacramento: 44/100, F

The Center for Public Integrity

Public Access to Information


The Sunlight Foundation

Availability of State Legislature Data


The California Public Records Act (PRA) grants the public the right to request specific information from public entities. However, the public records request process still needs improvement. Rather than encourage governments to actively volunteer critical information, it places the burden on citizens to seek it. Further, making and fulfilling requests can be timely and expensive, especially when governments duplicate efforts to provide the same information to multiple requesters. Many documents, some only a few years old, are not made available electronically, and those who request them must pay hefty fees. But even then, only those with inside knowledge know which documents to request and how to request them.

Greater transparency and an improved public records request process would allow the public to better hold officials accountable and assess government effectiveness. While not perfect, the PRA has still been critical in revealing official misconduct and mismanagement. For example, a citizen’s public records request for his city administrators’ and councilmembers’ salaries revealed a major financial corruption scheme in Bell, California (2010). Without access to the public records through the PRA, it is likely that those city officials would have continued with their illegal abuses as they had for multiple years.

Interest Groups Dominate

Small numbers of influential groups of lobbyists and interest groups often guide the passage of legislation without significant voter input. The Public Policy Institute of California found that 70% of Californians believed that the state government ran to serve “a few big interests.” Within the legislative system, lobbyists have earned the nickname “The Third House” due to their substantial political clout.

Lobbying and donations are avenues for individuals and groups to provide support to public officials, inform public officials on issues, and express their opinions. However, the process can certainly be abused. At its worst, this system allows only select prominent political lobbyists and donors to gain access to the legislative process. This can occur through the creation of personal relationships with lawmakers, lavish gift-giving, and sometimes by allowing special interests to author legislation itself.

Despite significant legislation to regulate interest spending, groups and individuals spent $300 million dollars on lobbying in 2013, the most in California’s history. Between 2000 and 2009, the Top 15 spending special interest groups spent more than a billion dollars lobbying the California State Legislature. Such spending can inhibit much needed reforms at the state and local level. As stated in the “Big Money Talks” report from the California Fair Political Practices Commission, “California’s Top 15 special interest groups often win by spending money to defeat ballot measures – which has the effect of maintaining the status quo.”

“California’s Top 15 special interest groups often win by spending money to defeat ballot measures – which has the effect of maintaining the status quo.”
- California Fair Political Practices Commission, “Big Money Talks” (March 2010)

Corruption and Public Distrust

Public corruption involves abuses of the public’s trust by governmental officials. Examples of public corruption include bribery, extortion, or fraud. In California, there have been 2,345 federal public corruption convictions between 1976 and 2010 (average of 65 a year). This is the second highest total in the U.S (9th highest on a per capita basis). More than half of these corruption convictions are from the Los Angeles region, which alone had 1,275 convictions over the time span.

In the last couple years, public corruption has emerged as a key topic in California news and discussions. This is in large part due to the recent indictments of State Senator Ronald Calderon and State Senator Leland Yee and the conviction of State Senator Rodrick Wright. Sen. Calderon was indicted for accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent and Sen. Yee was also indicted for bribery, as well as gun trafficking. Sen. Wright was convicted of voter fraud.

Instances of public corruption can severely diminish public trust. Immediately following the news of Sen. Yee’s arrest, The Field Poll found that the state Legislature’s voter approval rating dropped 3% and the disapproval rating increased 6%. A 2014 Edelman Communications study found that only 28% of Californians trust the state government.

What’s worse is that instances of public corruption may actually be cultivating generations that hold low levels of trust for government officials. In a 2014 USC Dornslife and Los Angeles Times poll, it was found that millennials (age 18-34) were more likely to be ‘not surprised’ about public corruption than seniors were.

“Millennials were more likely to say they were ‘not surprised’ about corruption than seniors were.”
- Dan Lieberman, Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner

Such widespread distrust reflects dissatisfaction with the state’s political and governance systems, but it also increases the likelihood of reduced interest and willingness to participate in those systems. For example, it has been found that rising political corruption is related to lower to voter turnout.

Declining Voter Turnout

Voter participation is a key indicator of the democratic health of a political institution. Voting is perhaps the biggest tenant of political participation. However, in recent years, California’s voter turnout has been declining. Among eligible California voters, participation in statewide general elections has declined from a peak of 78% in 1940 to a mere 55% in 2012 (Figure 10b). Voter turnout appears to be worse among the state’s youth. In the 2012 general election, only about 33% of eligible young adults (18-24 years old) voted.

Figure 10b: California Voter Turnout in State General Elections (Presidential Election Years 1912-2012) Figure 10b: California Voter Turnout in State General Elections (Presidential Election Years 1912-2012)

Similar trends also exist at the local level. For example, Los Angeles only had a 23.3% turnout for its mayoral election in 2013. This is significantly lower than the 76% turnout for the 1969 Los Angeles mayoral election. While research shows that low voter turnout rates may not have substantial impacts on election results at the national level, they appear to have their greatest impact at local level. But regardless, low levels of voter turnout are indicative of low levels of civic engagement.

There are multiple reasons that may explain why Californians do not vote. As stated earlier, Californian’s hold low levels of trust for state lawmakers. Californians may have become disenchanted with the voting process itself and no longer view it as a priority.

There are also significant barriers, both language differences and access to information deficiencies, which make it difficult for Californians to actually make well-informed decisions. When surveyed, most Californians express support for establishing an independent citizens’ commission that would hold public hearings and make recommendations on the official voter guide. The access to information barrier is highlighted by the following: In the 2014 primary election, approximately 300,000 Californian’s still voted for State Senator Leyland Yee after he was indicted for bribery and gun trafficking.


Today, Californians are less likely to engage with their state and local governments. They distrust their political leaders, vote much less than they once did, and simply do not have sufficient resources to become well-informed. As the state’s opaque system obscures actions by departments and public officials, it worsens its already poor record with public transparency and breeds an atmosphere that is susceptible to corruption. Unfortunately, those walls that keep out the public and prevent accountability are the same walls that reinforce citizens’ beliefs that they are helpless in efforts to rectify the system.

Works Cited [+ Expand]

Davis, Benjamin and Phineas Baxandall. “Follow the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data. U.S. PIRG Education Fund. April 2014.
Davis, Benjamin and Phineas Baxandall. “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities. U.S. PIRG Education Fund. January 2013.
“Corruption Risk Report Card: California.” The Center for Public Integrity. Accessed May 2014.
“Open States: Open Legislative Data Report Card.” The Sunlight Foundation. Accessed May 2014.
Martinez, Michael. “Former California City Manager Sentenced to 12 Years for Corruption.” CNN. April 16, 2014.
Baldassare, Mark and Dean Bonner, Sonja Petek, and Jui Shrestha. “Californians & their Government.” May 2013.
Sá, Karen De. “State senator aims to double lobby fee in California — to 14 cents a day.” San Jose Mercury. December 25, 2011.
Cohen-Eliya and Yoav Hammer. “Nontransparent Lobbying as a Democratic Failure.” William & Mary Policy Review. Vol. 2:365.
Myers, John. “Nearly $300 million Spent on Calif. State Lobbying in 2013.” News10 ABC. February 3, 2014.
California Fair Political Practices Commission. “Big Money Talks.” March 2010.
Simpson, Dick, James Nowlan, Thomas J. Gradel, et al. “Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pact in Corruption.” University of Illinois at Chicago. February 15, 2012. Pages 7-10.
Thompson, Dan. “Ron Calderon To Take Leave Following Federal Corruption Charges.” Huffington Post. March 2, 2014.
Mintz, Howard. “Leland Yee pleads not guilty to gun trafficking, corruption charges.” April 8, 2014.
“Jury finds Sen. Rod Wright guilty on 8 felony counts.” Capitol Alert. January 28, 2014.
“California Voter Views of the State Legislature Turn Negative After Arrest of State Senator Leland Yee.” The Field Poll. April 10, 2014.
“California’s Gov. Losing Trust in State’s Residents.” KFBK News Radio. February 26th, 2014.
Boston, Michelle. “USC Dornsife/LA Times poll reveals public opinion about political corruption.” May 31st, 2014.
Stockemer, Daniel. “Bribes and Ballots: The Impact of Corruption on Voter Turnout in 75 Democracies.” 2009.
“California’s 2012 Youth Turnout: Disparate Growth and Remaining Challenges.” UC Davis: Center for Regional Change. March 2013. Page 4.
Welsh, Ben. “L.A. mayoral runoff another low mark in voter turnout: 23.3%.” June 11, 2013.
California Secretary of State. “Historical Voter Registration and Participation in Statewide General Elections 1910-2012.”
Fang, Tim. “Leland Yee Receives Nearly 300,000 Votes In Primary Despite Corruption Charges.” June 3, 2014.

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