Thursday, May 24 , 2018, 10:01 am | Overcast 59º


Randy Alcorn: Diluted Democracy Right Here in Santa Barbara

Democracy is generally considered the noblest form of government and the form that most of the world either claims to have or wishes for.

But democracy is a slippery concept in actual practice. Many nations call themselves democracies but don’t behave as such — Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, to name a few, are democracies in name only.

The modern definition of democracy is a system of representative government in which the people freely elect their representatives by a majority vote — what the ancient Romans called the res publica, republic.

The United States is commonly recognized as the progenitor of modern democracy and the grandest of them all. However, even it doesn’t quite live up to its billing. American democracy has been purposely structured, both at its inception and subsequently, to dilute democracy.

The great thing about democracy is that every adult citizen can vote, which is also the not-so-great thing about democracy. Virtually any citizen 18 years or older can vote no matter how uninformed, misinformed, stupidly selfish or gullible.

The Founding Fathers likely had this in mind when they devised the Electoral College and the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures rather than directly by voters.

No matter what the form of government, the history of human civilization is that there is always a minority elite that endeavors to grab the supreme power and hold onto it. This is as common to democracies as it is to autocracies.

The competing interest groups in American politics are dominated by a minority of economic elites that have successfully altered the structures of democracy to ensure that they maintain more power and influence than their small numbers would ordinarily allow.

Devices such as unlimited campaign financing, gerrymandering, voter ID requirements, manipulating the numbers of and placement of polling places, and freezing the number of elected representatives in spite of an increasing population are all employed to manage democracy to favor the interests of the few.

However, no political device is more effective in diluting democracy and aiding the special interest few than is public apathy and ignorance. When massive numbers of eligible voters disengage from democracy or vote foolishly by having insufficient understanding of the issues, by blindly adhering to fixed ideologies, or by tossing a coin between duopoly candidates, democracy becomes mostly an exercise in form that ensures the entrenchment of minority interests.

The election of President Donald Trump is egregious evidence of diluted democracy. No rational, properly functioning, untampered political system would allow such a clearly unfit person to be elected to the highest office in the land.

Last month’s municipal election in Santa Barbara was also a display of diluted democracy. Of the nearly 58,000 city residents eligible to vote, less than 22,000 did.

I would like to think that most of the nonvoters were folks with insufficient acumen who shouldn’t have voted anyway, but with 56 percent of the voters approving an increase in the local sales tax, it is apparent that not all of the fools stayed away from the polls.

Decades of payroll and pension profligacy has left the City of Santa Barbara bereft of funds to provide basic road maintenance for city residents. The city needed to again hit up taxpayers, most of whom have incomes significantly smaller than that of their “public servants.”

Abraham Lincoln was right, you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Meanwhile, Cathy Murillo was hailed as the peoples’ choice when she won the mayoral race over four other candidates, but in fact she was the choice of only 28 percent of the people who voted and a paltry 11 percent of the city’s eligible voters.

Either way you look at it, Murillo is hardly the choice of the vast majority of Santa Barbara’s residents.

But, because there is no runoff election that would allow voters to choose between the top two vote-getters, or a ranked preference type of election that would allow voters to select their first and second preferred candidates, we end up with a minority of voters imposing their preference on the much larger majority — diluted democracy.

As was the change to district elections of council members from at-large elections — forced on the city by bludgeoning litigation that imposed gerrymandering for ethnicity.

The allegation prompting the litigation was that Santa Barbara’s at-large election system disenfranchised the city’s Hispanic population as evidenced by the lack of Hispanics on the City Council. But that situation is more likely due to the lack of participation by eligible Hispanic voters than it is due to structural discrimination.

Hispanics comprise 35 percent of the city’s population and 25 percent of the city’s eligible voters. That is enough muscle to elect at least one council member in the at-large system.

However, voter participation — in general historically anemic in Santa Barbara, running between 35 percent to 42 percent of eligible voters — is lowest among Hispanic voters.

But, rather than getting out the vote among the city’s indifferent Hispanic residents, the structure of democracy was tampered with so that a minority of voters can override the majority. This is what gerrymandering does.

Now, in hopes of increasing the city’s voter turnout, the city council is considering moving the timing of municipal elections to correspond with general elections.

How would participation in the general election improve informed voting in the local election? Would voters really be more likely to bone up on local issues and candidates while they are deciding on a president or senator?

Australia boasts that its voter participation is high because it imposes a fine on eligible citizens who don’t vote. How does forced voting improve democracy? It’s a secret ballot, so one can avoid the penalty by simply showing up at the polls, marking up the ballot or leaving it blank, and dropping it in the box.

More stupid people voting doesn’t strengthen democracy, rather it is the greatest threat to democracy.

Democracy is and always has been a particularly fragile form of government that has rarely endured very long before reverting to autocracy. The U.S. republic needs to hang in there another 254 years to equal the record longevity of the ancient Roman republic. I wouldn’t bet that the Roman record is in jeopardy.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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