What if they held an election and nobody came?
We throw that question around a lot in California, because so often here we hold elections and almost nobody comes. The March 6 race showcased the abysmal trend. We were electing the leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and education is a perennial concern of voters. The mayor is making a play for control of the district, and he staged an epic fundraising drive to outpace his sometime antagonists in United Teachers Los Angeles. This was a big one.
But turnout was a stunningly low 7.7 percent in Los Angeles, even lower in those parts of the school district encompassed by smaller cities. Provisional ballots are still being inspected and tabulated, so the figure could go higher. But it still won't break into the double digits.
There is plenty of room for speculating why the election was such a flop in the minds of voters who could have made a difference. In a city in demographic transition, a disproportionate percentage of eligible voters may be older and wealthier whites whose children are too old for public schools, or with no children at all. A disproportionate percentage of parents of LAUSD students may be immigrant noncitizens ineligible to vote. If that's the whole story, things will work themselves out over time. The current generation will grow up, have kids, and vote.
But that's not the whole story. Voters in local elections simply do not believe, at least not in very large numbers, that a political candidate has the power or desire to improve the quality of life in the city.
A wide range of fixes is at work to shore up public confidence in local democracy. Campaign finance reform laws attempt to limit the power of special interest money as part of an attempt to convince voters that election outcomes are not foregone conclusions, and that the basic unit of electoral power remains the vote, rather than the dollar. Term limits were added to get the rascals out, and now are being relaxed to keep the rascals in. There are candidate debates and blogs and web forums, just in case voters don't know the issues or the players. But all these things sometimes seem like desperate attempts to talk ourselves out of believing something that deep down we suspect: Democracy, in the form that we know it, is slipping away.
Two days after the election an extraordinary group of people gathered at USC to talk about the new form democracy, or its replacement, may take in the age of Myspace.com and American Idol. Just imagine, entrepreneur and civic thinker David Abel asked a handful of academics and politicos, that a group of frustrated civic activists met in a café to plot a strategy for direct democracy. There would be national initiatives and referenda, perhaps even recalls. Such a meeting about a century ago was, in fact, the genesis of California's direct democracy, such as it is.
Left unsaid was whether direct democracy would be a good move or a bad one. It's coming, in one form or another. Abel tried to pin political veteran Joe Trippi to the task of pushing the national initiative into law, but the man who guided former Vermont governor Howard Dean's comet-like appearance and disappearance as a 2004 presidential candidate with Internet-based social networking technologies pushed immediately to a more likely scenario: Let's say Finland is president of the European Union and calls on Americans to bypass their government and ratify the Kyoto accords. Tens of millions of Americans vote to do just that, instantaneously, with their cellphones or other devices. Is it binding? Of course not. But can the president afford to ignore a vote of tens of millions of Americans? What will be the next U.S. vote called for by a foreign power?
While you're pondering that thought, remember that thousands of Los Angeles teenagers used Myspace to organize school walkouts a year ago. In this age of disengagement from the political process, people have the power to engage on issues they care about.
That brings us to an era in which politicians become intermediaries, and intermediaries become superfluous. David Janssen, Los Angeles County's chief administrator, spoke of county residents sitting down to watch the Board of Supervisors on TV, picking up their cellphones and voting on the issue of the day. "We will not need elected officials in eight years," Janssen said.
Last year, Daniel Rosen of Nevada ran for Congress on a promise that he would only vote the way his constituents tell him to, via a software voting platform he had ready to go. Isn't that better, he said, than allowing those with the money to dictate how votes are cast?
It's excitingthis idea of overthrowing the government with people power, aided by the Internet and personal data devices.
But it takes us back to Square One. If people today don't care too much about who gets elected to the school board, will they care enough to download the proposed school construction budget and vote on that? Will they choose the Board of Supervisors broadcast over So You Think You Can Dance? Or will they instead only use their Blackberries to demand ratification of the Kyoto accords or construction of a border fence?
John Adams, James Madison and the other founders feared the tyranny of the majority and shaped the Constitution to keep the people free from themselves. The same Constitution mandates a slow, deliberative process that is being outpaced by modern problems and technological solutions. But if democracy as we know it is atrophying from disuse, something is sure to take its place. It may be a new, electronic-based democracy. Or it may be something less benign.
"We're talking about principles of liberty," former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said. The Constitutionand the system of voting that we knowis a framework for delivering freedom.
"If we do not work this out," Hertzberg said, "liberty is threatened."
Robert Greene is a member of The Times' editorial board.