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Ventura County Perspective

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Apathetic Voter

We Americans revel in democratic rhetoric, convinced that we can make a difference. And then we stay home from the polls--in droves.

July 04, 1999|BEVERLY KELLEY | Beverly Kelley hosts "Local Talk" on KCLU-FM (88.3) at 7 p.m. Mondays. She teaches in the communication department at Cal Lutheran University. Praeger released her book, "Reelpolitik: Political Ideologies in '30s and '40s Films." Address e-mail to kelley@clunet.edu

Louis B. Mayer was neither a real-live nephew of his Uncle Sam nor was he born on the Fourth of July.

Still, no native could rival the shower of red, white and blue fireworks he kindled on and off the silver screen. Mayer claimed he couldn't quite recall which day the stork dropped him off so the Jewish immigrant, whose family fled the pogroms in Russia, adopted his adopted nation's birthday as his own.

Although movie buffs may recollect that his American dream factory churned out plenty of patriotic product, friends and family recollect the dizzyingly extravagant Independence Day ceremonies to which he treated himself and at which he spoke with great emotion about the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Rhetorically wrapping oneself in the Stars and Stripes may seem anachronistic in this era when Sam Adams is better known as brand of beer than as a founding father. Instead of appreciating our inalienable rights, we engage in an excess of eats, a surfeit of Sousa and a redundancy of rockets' red glare.

What it means to be an American, a topic that has prompted many a July 4 oration, has been left largely unexamined by contemporary celebrants. Official observances do little more than duplicate the same parade and pyrotechnics available every night at the nearest amusement park.

Stephen Vincent Benet implored America to find and hold fast to that "buried thing in all of us" that haters of freedom will never understand. That defining aspect has been lurking, for 223 years, in the first three words of the Constitution. Encapsulated in "we the people" is a radical way of thinking about government, namely that not only does power originate in but remains under the control of the citizenry.

Popular sovereignty frees us from the passivity and deference that characterize less fortuitous folks. Americans are self-reliant individuals, not forced to depend on some powerful "they" to extricate us from less-than-ideal circumstances. By fixing the grammar of our political culture in the first person, our intensely passionate engagement in civic affairs should hardly be unanticipated.

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From lobbying elected officials to speaking out at public hearings, we Ventura County residents remain convinced that we can make a difference. And we do. We clash like crazy with those who would relocate a popular high school principal, double dip on car allowances or label a charming cityscape "blighted." But what happens to "government of the people, by the people and for the people" when it comes to exercising our franchise to vote?

In November, fewer than half the registered voters in the county showed up at the polls. Squeaker races included the contest for Conejo Valley Unified School District board, the Santa Paula school board and City Council as well as the 37th Assembly District. Last month, only 23.7% of the eligible voters in Ventura sank Measure A, the referendum on Midtown redevelopment. So much for "my vote won't make a difference."

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Enrolling new voters usually translates into higher turnout because recent registrants are more likely to vote. For those who blow the 29-day registration deadline, the state Assembly recently approved a proposal (already used in six states) that would permit registration on election day.

Both Paul Leavens, who chairs the Ventura County Republican Party, and Secretary of State Bill Jones fear fraud should this bill get the state Senate nod and governor's signature. Hank Lacayo, who heads up Ventura County's Democrats, remains unconvinced. In fact, he contends (tongue firmly in cheek) that the right to vote should extend from the moment of birth.

Baby boomers, who railed against being considered old enough to die for their country but not old enough to vote, eventually managed to get 18-year-olds franchised. Even though Diane Alexander of the Conejo Valley Republican Women Federated takes particular delight in signing up young people, disappointingly few make the effort. Neither get-out-the-vote drives nor the convenience of the motor-voter law, which encourages people to register to vote when they apply for their driver's license, has appreciably swelled voter ranks.

That may change if Jesus Linares has anything to do with it. He's a one-man voter registration machine who shows up at the Center Point Mall in Oxnard every weekend. This hyperactive 74-year-old, who was born in Mexico, has personally added 500 Latinos to the rolls in the past two months. He spins out future dreams of installing a dedicated telephone line and answering machine to arrange meetings with community members in their homes. He has been able to turn around reluctant newcomers by convincing them that no one in the United States will be able to steal their vote.

You see, in the home of the brave and land of the free, only apathy can steal your vote. Perhaps it takes an immigrant to model good citizenship for us, to remind us that life without the rights we not only take for granted but squander shamelessly is no Fourth of July picnic.

An all-time high in Ventura County voter turnout in 2000? Wouldn't that just be Yankee Doodle dandy.

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