Ron Kaye: Time to restore democracy

Politically speaking, all bets are off, the rules have changed and everything is up for grabs in 2012.

Legislative and congressional districts have been redrawn by a citizen’s commission without the gerrymandering that has contributed so much to the stalemates and gridlock in Washington and Sacramento for most of the last two decades.

Even more importantly, the party primary system is gone, replaced by an open primary system that allows you on June 5 to cast your ballot for any candidate, no matter the party affiliation. The top two vote-getters will be in a runoff in November, even if they are both from the same party, unless somebody gets an outright majority in June.

Taking control away from the Democrats and Republicans should mean that there will be fewer politicians from the far left and far right, and more somewhere in the middle, where most voters are. This is a change that would re-introduce the idea of compromise back into state and congressional politics and might even get America moving again.

If you don’t like the way things are going, today is the day to make a resolution to pay attention to the details of the actions of your elected officials. Go beyond the glad-handing and smooth-talking, and examine their records to see if they represented you, helped solve your problems and made your life better, or whether they kowtowed to contributors, lobbyists, corporations, unions and all the other special interests that write most legislation and buy what is euphemistically called “access.”

My experience in covering government in a lot of different cities and states for more than four decades is that it is a rare politician who still has a healthy measure of integrity left after even a year or two in office.

There are some, but not many, who stand on principle, who say what they mean and mean what they say.

But they are a rare breed. Holding public office is addictive — the flattery, the self-importance, the pressures to obey the party, to pander to where the campaign money comes from.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

But when 15% or 20% of registered voters turn out for local elections and barely half turn out for elections for governor and legislators, the fault lies not with the politicians, but with us.

Think about this: At the height of the Great Depression, two-thirds of all eligible adults and three-fourths of registered voters cast ballots in the California governor’s race. In the last 20 years, turnout has averaged barely 40% of those eligible and just 56% of those registered, reflecting a sharp decline in registration and public engagement.

With the Internet, with professional and citizen journalism, we have the ability to be truly informed, to get beyond even our own biases and ideological blind spots to see candidates for who they are and what they really stand for.

There are signs from the left in the Occupy movements and the right in the Tea Party that more people are paying attention.

More people are registering as independents and crossing party lines as they pick their way through their ballots.

Polls show that Congress and the state legislature are incredibly unpopular and that the discontent is, for the first time, impacting what people think of their own elected officials — not just their view of the body as a whole.

We have the power to put our politicians on notice that we are watching them closely, and are in a position to judge their performance with clear eyes.

It would truly be a happy new year if we showed that we were holding accountable those who failed us and those who sold us out to special interests.

My own new year’s resolution is to help restore democracy in America. Of course, I’ve been making that resolution for a long time. Maybe this year it will come to pass.

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

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