Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Fair voting in California should be fair voting

Early morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot in a statewide general election at polling location in Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep school before taking her son Jacob Morgan, 7, to school on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Early morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot in a statewide general election at polling location in Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep school before taking her son Jacob Morgan, 7, to school on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. lsterling@sacbee.com

Civil rights groups, particularly those representing California’s burgeoning Latino population, have pressed for years to do away with “at-large” elections of city council and school board members.

Having voters of the entire city or school district vote to fill all council or board positions allows one bloc of voters to dominate and disenfranchises minority groups, they contended, with logic on their side.

After years of wrangling, the Legislature, dominated by Democrats, stepped in to compel cities and school systems to elect governing bodies by district, emulating how the Legislature, county boards of supervisors and most larger cities and school districts comport themselves.

If the rationale for making such a change in local agencies is valid, however, why don’t we apply it to how California’s votes for president are counted?

California, like most states, awards its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. That is, the top popular vote-getter, even if he or she has less than a majority, gets all of the state’s electoral votes.

Ever since 1992, when Bill Clinton won in California, albeit with just 46 percent of the popular vote, the state has been reliably Democratic, and there’s no reason to believe 2016 will be any different. California will almost certainly deliver its 55 electoral votes – just over one-fifth of what’s needed to win the White House – to whomever the Democratic Party nominates.

Intrinsically, that’s as unfair as at-large local elections because it disenfranchises the Republican political minority, and in doing so also means California will be ignored in the fall campaign.

California could, if it wished, divide its electoral votes proportionately, as do two states, Maine and Nebraska. Their electoral votes are awarded by congressional district outcomes with the two extras, representing their Senate seats, going to the statewide winner.

That’s the system, incidentally, that the California Republican Party uses to divvy up its convention delegates.

California Democrats are not about to make a change that would give Republicans any of the state’s electoral votes, even as they decry at-large voting at the local level. And what’s been happening in Nebraska recently illustrates the do-as-we-say, not-as-we-do attitude.

Nebraska Republicans want to undo their proportional allocation of electoral votes and shift to a California-like winner-take-all system, reacting to Barack Obama’s winning one of the state’s five electoral votes in 2008.

Nebraska Democrats, of course, want to keep the state’s proportional system for the same reasons California Republicans would prefer it; it would give the minority party a chance to win something in a state dominated by the other party.

Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who was Nebraska’s governor in the 1980s, before the state became dominated by Republicans, characterized it as “a simple play by the Republican majority” to hurt Democrats, according to The New York Times.

By the same token, maintaining California’s winner-take-all system, as illogical and unfair as it may be, is simply aimed at suppressing minority Republicans.

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