The Big Five is an informal institution of the legislative leadership role in California's government, consisting of the governor, the Assembly speaker, the Assembly minority leader, the Senate president pro tempore, and the Senate minority leader. Members of the Big Five meet in private to discuss bills pending in the legislature. Because the party caucus leaders in California's legislature also control the party's legislative campaign funds, the leaders wield tremendous power over their caucus members. They are thus able to exert some influence in their caucus's votes in Big Five meetings.
Only the Democratic Party and Republican Party currently have representation in the State Legislature. However, for a brief period around the turn of the 21st century, one member of the Green Party was a member of the State Assembly, representing the eastern San Francisco Bay Area.
California currently uses the plurality voting system ("First-past-the-post") in its elections, but some municipalities such as San Francisco and Berkeley have opted to use a system of preferential voting, currently used in Australia and Ireland, more popularly known in the United States as instant-runoff voting or ranked choice voting.
Local elections in California at the county and city level are officially non-partisan and political party affiliations are not included on local election ballots.
The two major political parties in California that currently have representation in the State Legislature and U.S. Congress are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There are four other parties that qualify for official ballot status: the American Independent Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Peace and Freedom Party.
Of the 18,245,970 California voters registered for the November 6, 2012, general election:43.7% were Democrats
29.4% were Republicans
6.0% were affiliated with other political parties
20.9% were unaffiliated ("Decline to State" or "No Party Preference") voters
Many of California's governmental agencies, institutions, and programs have been established in the Constitution of California. Additionally, the state constitution establishes mandatory funding levels for some agencies, programs and institutions. This issue came to the forefront when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature attempted to cut spending to close the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficits during the 2000s. Consequently, affected agencies with support from special interest groups, successfully pressed the California Supreme Court to order the restoration of funding to a number of agencies and programs which had been cut.
There have been several events, many dubbed "constitutional crises" by their opponents, over the last thirty-two years including:the passage of term limits for the California legislature and elected constitutional officers, which was hotly argued statewide, and debated in the Supreme Court of California;
a test of the ratification process for the Supreme Court, in which a liberal chief justice, Rose Bird, and two liberal associate Justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, were ousted;
a full-fledged tax revolt, "Proposition 13", which resulted in the freezing of real estate tax rates at 1% of the property's last sale price (plus a modest 2% maximum annual inflator);
a test of the state recall provision, in which Governor Gray Davis was recalled in a 2003 special election.
a failure to pass a budget until almost three months after the constitutional deadline (2008).
Northern California's inland areas, the Central Valley, and Southern California outside Los Angeles County are mostly Republican areas. Coastal California, including such areas as the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles County and as well as Sacramento are mostly Democratic areas. As most of the population is in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, California as a whole tends to be liberal.
California was a Republican stronghold in presidential elections from 1952 until 1992. During this period, the Republicans won California in every election except the election of 1964. In these years, the GOP regularly nominated Californians as presidential candidates: Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Since then however, the Democrats have carried the electoral rich state since 1992. The immigration of Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans and migration of northern liberals, who tend to vote Democratic, and the flight of white, middle and upper-middle class suburbanites out of the state shifted the balance in favor of the Democratic Party.
Among the state's divisive issues are water and water rights, resulting in the California Water Wars. Lacking reliable dry season rainfall, water is limited and available surface sources are extensively developed through dams, canals, and pipelines. The principal water sources are mountain runoff from wet season rains and higher altitude snowpack (70%), wells (limited by salt-water incursion and overuse), and some Colorado River water supplying southern California (strictly limited by treaties with the other western states and Mexico). Waste water reclamation in California is already routine (for irrigation and industrial use). Most water is in the north of the State, while agriculture, the largest user of stored water in California, is most prevalent in the central and southern areas. Additionally, the majority of the state's population is in the south. Water viewed as excess by the south is viewed by the north as environmentally essential for agriculture, fisheries, and wildlife. While the southern electorate has a greater portion of the population it is not as unified in its viewpoint as is that of the north, so ballot propositions such as those promoting a Peripheral Canal to transport water to the south have failed.
Land use is also divisive. High land prices mean that ordinary people keep a large proportion of their net worth in land. This leads them to agitate strongly about issues that can affect the prices of their home or investments. The most vicious local political battles concern local school boards (good local schools substantially raise local housing prices) and local land-use policies. In built-up areas it is extremely difficult to site new airports, dumps, or jails. Many cities routinely employ eminent domain to make land available for development. A multi-city political battle was fought for several years in Orange County concerning the decommissioning of the huge El Toro Marine airbase. Orange County needs a new airport (pilot unions voted the existing airport, John Wayne, the least safe in the U.S.), but the noise could reduce land prices throughout the southern part of the county, including wealthy, politically powerful Irvine.
Gun control is another divisive issue, which stems at least partially from the fact that California's constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right for ordinary citizens to keep and bear arms. In the cities, California has one of the U.S.'s most serious gang problems, and in some farming regions, some of the highest murder rates. The state also contains many individuals who desire to keep and bear arms in defense of themselves, their families, and property. The legislature has passed restrictive gun control laws. Private purchase of "assault" weapons (generally, semi-automatic rifles that look like military rifles) without prior approval from the state Department of Justice (which rarely grants such approval) is a felony. The law does not, however, prohibit sales of semi-automatic hunting-style civilian weapons, leading many to question the effectiveness of the cosmetic distinction. Pistols may be purchased and kept in one's home or place of business (however, they are required to be registered to the state and must be considered a "safe" handgun (see AB 1471), but it is illegal to carry weapons or ammunition outside these areas without a concealed weapons permit, except in a locked area (car trunk) to licensed practice ranges or other legitimate uses (hunting, repair, collection, etc.) Open carry of an unloaded firearm in some areas is legal but very uncommon due to the confusing web of state and federal laws, such as the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which makes it a felony to carry a gun within 1000 feet of a school, even without malicious intent. As of 2012, open carry of firearms is for the most part banned, with exceptions made for law enforcement, hunters, and individuals in rural areas of the state. Except in a handful of rural counties, most people find it impossible to get concealed weapons permits since they are issued at the discretion of the local law enforcement officials; California is not a "shall issue" state for concealed weapons permits. Because of the importance of local law enforcement's discretion, some counties are nevertheless virtually "shall issue" while others are de facto "no issue", leading to the peculiar situation of rural residents of one jurisdiction being able to legally carry their handguns in areas where the local residents cannot. For more see gun laws in California.
Because California is the most populous state in the United States, legislation and policies that are enacted by the government of California often have significant implications on major political issues at the national level. Throughout the twentieth century, political decisions in California have wielded substantial influence with Congress while considering legislation at the federal level. Because of the potentially nationwide implications for political decisions made in California, special-interest groups, many of which are based outside of California, play a greater role in California politics than in most other states, by contributing large amounts of money into lobbying, litigation, and producing media advertisements to influence voters and elected officials on major political issues. The California Fair Political Practices Commission regulates campaign finance and lobbying in California.
The California Supreme Court has "a reputation as perhaps the most innovative of the state judiciaries, setting precedents in areas of criminal justice, civil liberties, racial integration, and consumer protection that heavily influence other states and the federal bench."
The most populous state, California has the largest Congressional delegation of any state, with 53 representatives and two senators.
Many leading members of Congress are from California. Among the Democrats are:
- Rep. Nancy Pelosi from the 12th District (Minority Leader)
- Senator Dianne Feinstein (Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee)
- Senator Kamala Harris (Member of the Select Committee on Intelligence)
Among the Republicans are:
- Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the 23rd District (Majority Leader )
- Rep. Ed Royce from the 39th District (Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs)
- Rep. Devin Nunes from the 22nd District (Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence)
- Rep. Darrell Issa from the 49th District (Chairman of the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet)