Ron Kaye: Surrendering power, abdicating responsibility

In the scandal-ridden city of Bell, barely a third of voters recently turned out at the polls to throw out the officials who allegedly looted the treasury.

That was nearly three times the percentage that cast ballots in the March 8 Los Angeles municipal election, in which six City Council members were returned to office despite widespread discontent over closed libraries, parks and fire stations, soaring utility rates and a worsening budget crisis.

Only 14.3% of registered voters could bother to participate in Burbank’s recent primary election and the turnout will surely be lower for the runoff between Emily Gable-Luddy and Bob Frutos on April 12.

Glendale turnout rarely goes much above 20% and that is likely what will occur at the city elections on April 5.

Even in presidential elections, one in five of those registered in California doesn’t vote, and one in four eligible voters don’t even care enough to register.

The right to vote and choose our leaders — something oppressed people across the Arab world are putting their lives on the line to get — is taken for granted here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It makes you wonder what would happen if they held an election and no one came.

Or better yet, what if they held an election and everyone came out and voted because it was compulsory?

More than 30 nations around the world require citizens to register and to vote — a dozen enforce the requirement with fines, and even publish the names of those who don’t vote to expose them to public opprobrium.

That’s what Australia does, including many towns and cities. The result is a 96% voter turnout — something made easier by holding elections on weekends, when people have free time and few excuses.

Voting is the most fundamental right, the most important civic duty we have. Yet most people surrender their power and abdicate their responsibility.

In L.A., as few as 4,000 votes were enough to re-elect a council member in a San Fernando Valley district with 270,000 residents.

So much for majority rules, so much for democracy. We’re talking about barely 1% of the population deciding who shall make decisions about their lives, their neighborhoods, their city and its future.

What legitimacy does that bestow on the elected official?

Walking precincts for grassroots candidates in the election, it was quickly clear that most voters are apathetic and ignorant about the issues and candidates, even though the actions and policies made at the local level have a far more direct impact than those made at the state or national level.

Experts in elections say voters pay a lot more attention when voting is compulsory, and it deeply affects the entire political process.

Candidates in local elections know, with a high degree of accuracy, who is going to vote, where they live, their phone number and their affiliation with a political party.

Those voters get the mailers, the phone calls and the knock on the door from precinct walkers. The non-participants are irrelevant. They might as well not exist.

The advantage to incumbents and those with the most money is overwhelming, which keeps many qualified people from ever considering running for public office.

That is less true in smaller cities than in large ones, but it’s true everywhere, and allows narrow special interests and advocacy groups to dominate the political scene.

Compulsory voting isn’t going to happen any time soon, but think about how much more vibrant the political conversation would be, how much stronger the civic engagement would be, if everyone had to vote or see their name printed in the News-Press & Leader as someone who neglected their responsibility to the community.

The last day to register for the Glendale election is Monday, for Burbank’s, it’s March 28. You can get more information on the city websites.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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