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Electoral reforms needed

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Voting is a pillar of democracy. Without the ability of the people to freely and easily elect their leaders, the whole experiment crumbles.

Unfortunately, the electoral system in America is eroding. While many changes are needed to shore up our elections nationwide, there are several things we can do at the county and city level to ensure freer and fairer elections, and thereby bolster democracy.

Cities across the state are changing the way local officials are elected, moving to district elections instead of at large, or citywide elections. Santa Rosa and Windsor have made the switch, and Petaluma leaders have talked about it.

These cities are not on the vanguard of electoral reform, however. They have switched begrudgingly and at the goading of a potential lawsuit. But there should be nothing for cities to fear about district elections, unless more diverse representation in local government is a bad thing.

District elections in a city council race would partition the city into geographic districts based on the number of seats on the council. Petaluma would have six districts with one council member representing each district.

Instead of selecting candidates citywide like in the current system, which draws a disproportionate number of candidates that live on the west side of the city, in a district election, each neighborhood would select one council member, ensuring that all parts of the city are represented.

This, by the way, is the system we use to elect members to the county board of supervisors, which guarantees that all parts of the county have one elected official. Since all politics are local, why not have elections at the truly local, neighborhood level, thus ensuring an elected representative who lives near you, and is likely of a similar social-economic level and demographic as you.

Unlike other cities, Petaluma could have the added advantage of having district elections while also having a citywide representative. Since we are one of the few cities of this size to directly elect our mayor, we could still have a citywide race for mayor while electing our council representative from our local district.

Another positive change to the voting system that has been discussed recently is ranked-choice voting, where voters rank the candidates for office in races with more than two candidates. The system, which is already in place in Maine, as well as San Francisco, Berkeley and other places, helps to ensure that an underdog candidate doesn’t spoil an election, and lets people cast a protest vote without feeling like it would go to waste.

For example, in the 2016 presidential election, some voters who preferred Green Party candidate Jill Stein perhaps voted for Hillary Clinton instead, fearing that a vote for Stein would have helped Donald Trump. In ranked choice voting, those voters could have ranked Stein first and Clinton second, thus boosting Clinton’s total score while at the same time voicing support for Stein.

At the county level, the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters is debuting new machines that will make it easier to vote and faster to get results on election day. The new voting machines, which rolled out in last week’s west county special election, will be deployed at polling places in cities in coming elections.

California is a leader in making voting easier. About two thirds of state voters cast ballots by mail, up to a month before election day. Unfortunately, many states are making it harder for people to vote, enacting voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and restricting early and mail-in voting.

One of the most glaring defects of our national election system, the antiquated Electoral College, could become irrelevant in the next couple of years. The Electoral College is no longer needed, and when it results in overturning the popular vote, as happened twice in the past 20 years, it is an impediment to direct democracy.

One way to get rid of the Electoral College is through a constitutional amendment. But that requires a two-thirds vote in Congress, which is dysfunctional to the point of paralysis.

A way around Congress, however, is for states to act on their own. It is up to states to decide how they award electors to the Electoral College. Most, but not all, states award all of their electors to the candidate who won the most votes in that state.

However, a handful of states have signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would award all of the state’s electors to the candidate that won the popular vote, regardless of who won the state. California is a signatory to the compact, which would only go into affect once enough states sign on to represent a majority of the electoral votes.

With Colorado poised to join the initiative, that would be 181 of the 270 electoral votes needed to enact the compact. Freeing voters from the Electoral College is just one necessary reform that our byzantine election system needs.