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The fight for democracy

With voter apathy on the rise, Oregon activists look for ways to fix an ailing political system
by: David Plechl, Volunteers from Building Blocks, Building Votes get set to register young voters along Northeast Alberta Street on Last Thursday.

Every year, with the fireworks of Independence Day, inevitably comes talk of how the United States has the best government in the world. But if democracy were soccer, we would not even qualify for the World Cup.

In the last decade the U.S. ranked 140th of 160 democracies in voter turnout, barely edging out Botswana. And in Oregon, despite making voting easier than in any other state, only 38 percent of those registered to vote bothered to do so in the May primary election - about tied with our historic low. The last time someone polled the question, only 43 percent of Oregonians knew how many U.S. senators they had (hint: all states have two).

That's the bad news. The good news is that in a world full of pessimism, plenty of people are finding reasons for hope. They are placing their bets on a variety of fixes, three of which may well be on the November ballot, including an open primary, term limits and campaign finance reform.

Meanwhile state Sen. Avel Gordly recently put her own ideal into action - a nonpartisan Oregon Legislature - by renouncing her Democratic party affiliation. Gordly, who represents part of Northeast and Southeast Portland, is changing her registration to Independent.

While Gordly thinks she has part of the answer, so do others, like former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling; Anna Galland, who organizes young voters; and state Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Jacksonville, who came in third in the May primary race for the Republican nomination for Oregon governor.

Parties lose ground

For Gordly, the numbers paint a disturbing picture. In 1950, fewer than 2 percent of Oregon's registered voters did not affiliate with either party, or about 12,000 people. But by 2006, that portion was up to 25 percent - about a half a million people. That is a half a million Oregonians who did not identify with the two major political parties and the ones who control the direction of the state, Gordly says.

'They don't feel an affinity to the political parties,' she says of the Independents. This is a problem, since 'government is where decisions are made every day that affect the quality of everyone's lives,' she says.

If the number reflects a statistical measure of disaffection, then Gordly now officially shares it. Why? Because Gordly says partisan battling between the two parties is preventing the state Legislature from tackling problems in Salem.

School funding is one example, with Oregonians treated to a new round of headlines about potential budget cuts every year, Gordly says.

During the 2005 session, two prominent politicians, state House Speaker Karen Minnis, a Republican, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, floated proposals to make funding more stable - proposals that were surprisingly similar. However, Gordly notes, each proposal promptly sank - in part due to partisanship.

'The minute these proposals came out, people began to attack them based on who made the proposals,' she says, 'as opposed to looking at them on their merits.'

As a result, Gordly supports the idea of making elections for the entire Legislature nonpartisan, just as local races are. That way, she says, lawmakers would be better able to vote their conscience and tackle problems, without worrying about what their political party tells them to do.

Given the power and money of the major parties, Gordly's decision to go Independent could mean an end to her career as an elected official. But she seems OK with that, saying simply: 'What we have now doesn't work.'

Focus moves to fringe issues

Keisling, a former secretary of state, shares Gordly's concern. The two major parties have become the equivalent of an unbridgeable divide, like Sunni versus Shiite, he says.

Making politics more relevant to voters is key to bringing more of them to the ballot box, he says. But because so few people vote, the political parties increasingly address fringe issues, while avoiding the big problems facing society.

Keisling argues that part of the problem is that so many legislative and congressional districts are not competitive: One party is going to win, and as a result there is little reason for people in the other party to participate.

He is pushing a measure for the November ballot that would change Oregon to an open-primary system. That would mean that voters can vote for whomever they want, instead of allowing only registered Democrats to vote for Democrats. Keisling and state Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, have raised about $500,000 to gather signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

This, he says, will make politicians more often speak to issues that matter to people. If a group of Estonian observers had come over for the May primary, for instance, they would have felt that issues on Oregonians' mind were tribal casinos as well as 'who knew Neil Goldschmidt, and who is this guy Loren Parks?' says Keisling, referring to two controversial Oregon power brokers who factored into primary debates. The political discussion said virtually nothing about pressing issues such as the health care system, which, as a generation of baby boomers grows old, is 'hurtling toward a cliff.'

This, in turn, erodes people's faith in their elected leaders' credibility and that the system is working for them.

Keisling now works for a high-tech firm, Hepieric Inc., which does business overseas, in places like Vietnam. He thinks potential voters know instinctively what he is seeing firsthand: Other countries' governments are aggressively tackling issues like international competitiveness, and the U.S. is falling behind. The younger generation that is most affected by this is the one that is least involved, Keisling says: 'If you're under 30, the single biggest party affiliation is none of the above.'

Cause taken to the streets

It's last Thursday, in a nondescript office building in Southeast Portland. Two dozen young people, mainly college students, gear up for a summer of registering voters as part of a nonpartisan project called Building Blocks, Building Votes. They introduce themselves and answer an icebreaker question: If you could date any politician in history, who would it be?

'I'd think I'd go for Erik Sten - he's obviously dreamy,' says Britta Lundin, a senior at Reed College.

Julius Caesar is the choice of Libby Banks from Texas: 'I just think we'd have a lot to talk about.'

Rafael Batista from Southern California, however, says: 'I would not go out with a politician. I don't trust them.'

Standing before the group, Galland, the group's coordinator, talks about what she thinks is the vicious cycle that is driving voter participation downward.

'One of the reasons politicians can ignore young people is that young people don't vote,' she says.

But if young people are making the pitch, more young people will be persuaded to participate, the thinking goes. 'Nobody's hearing, 'I'm your neighbor, I'm your friend. I think it's important, and you should vote,' ' Galland says.

The group boards a bus supplied by the Building Votes' parent organization, the nonprofit Oregon Bus Project, and heads up to Northeast Alberta Street. There, they fan out with clipboards and start registering voters amid the varied smells and sounds of the popular Alberta art walk and street festival called Last Thursday.

As Lundin, a gregarious type in an orange T-shirt, approaches passers-by, most politely decline, saying they are already registered.

But one, Michael Rubenstein, takes the clipboard with a smile, while saying he'd resisted other voter-registration efforts. 'I haven't found anyone worth voting for in the last five years,' he says.

Andre Temkin, a lean man with a shaved head and an orange Adidas sweatshirt, declines Lundin's pitch and kept walking, saying he does not want to register. Approached by a reporter, Temkin, a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Russia more than a decade ago, says the reason is simple. He doesn't trust anybody, including the press. 'I don't watch TV, and I don't read newspapers,' he says. 'I don't know what's going on, and I don't want to give my vote to something that I am not aware of.'

Even if he did vote, the people with money would still get their way, he argues. 'Republicans or Democrats, there are people behind them, and it's their game. Very few people have power.'

Special interests pay the way

Temkin leads a local Russian-American rock band called Miru Mir, a nod to an old propaganda slogan of the Soviet Union that vowed 'Peace to the world.'

One might not think he has a lot in common with Atkinson, the state senator who was an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. But Temkin and Atkinson agree that a big part of the problem with politics is special interests with money. 'The most powerful people in Salem today are lobbyists,' Atkinson says.

Atkinson says that he does not believe a legal fix such as campaign finance reform is going to cure the problem. Contribution limits merely lead to more difficult-to-trace indirect contributions called 'soft money, ' he says.

'I don't think that a law is going to change someone's ethics,' he says. Nor is he a fan of the term limits proposal that could end up on the ballot, thus restoring a law backed by conservatives that was struck down in 2002. He thinks the terms are too short, thus ensuring lawmakers lack expertise. 'I think what the last term limits (law) did is make lobbyists more powerful,' he says.

Atkinson thinks what is needed is individual leadership and a different style of politics. 'It has a lot to do with saying no to special interests. It has to do with going to small towns to meet with people. … There's huge lessons there of what my campaign was able to do with virtually no money, with the power of grass-roots organizing.'

It would be easy to dismiss Atkinson's statement as political posturing, except that he clearly is not trying to woo the power brokers of his own party. As for the grass-roots lesson that his campaign taught, he says, 'Unfortunately, my party won't learn that lesson' because he lost the primary.

'Well, do you give up or keep fighting?' Atkinson says. 'I'm a fighter.'

Quality of debate declines

When it comes to fixing democracy, Curtis Gans of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate, housed at American University in Washington, D.C., has spent his career studying the issue. He agrees that money in politics is part of the problem and, he says, so are the nastiness of campaigns and lack of ethics in leadership - as well as the declining quality of an increasingly conflict-oriented media. All of these things further the cycle of declining voter turnout, he says, which in turn leads to a lowering of the quality of debate.

'As voter turnout goes down, politics becomes increasingly the province of the interested and the zealous,' Gans says, adding that the potential consequences threaten democracy itself. 'We are in danger of unchecked authoritarianism and demagoguery.'

He disagrees with many of the cures proposed by others, however. He says the problem with nonpartisan elections is that if you take political parties out of the equation, you lower the quality of the public debate. You also remove the two organizations that are doing the most to turn out the vote.

The changes that are necessary, he says, include redistricting reform to ensure that there are more competitive races, making a serious investment in civic education in schools, realigning the political parties and reforming political advertising and the media.

In other words, Gans lands with Atkinson, saying that while grass-roots activism won't hurt, to bring about meaningful reforms will require courage at the highest levels of government.

'Most of the things that I am talking about,' he says, 'require leadership.'

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