Eureka’s Electoral System: It IS Broke…

…and it DOES Need Fixin’.

The consensus from those that spoke against the agenda item at the Eureka City Council meeting last night that would put the current system on the ballot this November was that Eureka’s “at large” electoral system ain’t broke and it doesn’t need fixing. (Note:  If you will watch this online, this debate starts just over 3 hrs into the meeting.)

On the other hand, Democratic Central Committee Chair (and friend) Bob Service made the argument that far from being not-broke, Eureka’s democracy is in crisis.  He pointed out that half of those sitting behind the dais had run unopposed.  Does anyone wish to argue that our record of unopposed elections isn’t broken?

Councilmember Marian Brady brought up the specious argument that 80% of Eureka would be disenfranchised by a true ward system.  Councilmember Ciarabellini disagreed with Councilmember Atkins’ who referenced City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson’s report that the current system represents a potential financial liability under the California Voting Rights Act by saying we’re not “doing polarized elections”.

But in the end, it was the progressive majority that won the day late-night once the 5 votes had been counted.  Councilmembers Kim Bergel, Linda Atkins and Natalie Arroyo voted to put Eureka’s electoral system on the ballot this November.

Say-what-now? … Ward what?  … At-large whos-it? 

Here is the current *sigh* map from the city of Eureka. (This was found as the top hit from Google-the other map from the city available here does not include the names of the councilmembers)

Eureka Ward

If you are keeping score at home, just go ahead and cross out Newman and Madsen (may he rest in peace) and update this with Bergel and Arroyo respectively.  But these are the current geographic boundaries of Eureka’s 5 wards. This November, in addition to getting a chance to vote for a return to democracy in Eureka (yey!), Eureka residents will get the chance to vote for 2 city councilmembers – those that will represent the 2 even numbered Second and Fourth Wards.

We will vote for councilmembers from the Second and Fourth Wards every Presidential election year.  During the other even-numbered general election where the top of the ticket will have our Governor, we vote for the odd-numbered Wards 1, 3 and 5 and the City Mayor.

When I say “we” I mean all of Eureka.  If you are within the boundaries on that map you will vote for 2 council members in one cycle (2016,2020,…) and 3 council-members and a mayor in the other (2018, 2022, …).

So from an individual voter’s perspective, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a great deal of this argument, it’s an embarrassment of riches.  You get to vote for all of the Council.  That is our current system, what is known as the “at-large” electoral system.

The True Ward System:

What we will be asking the voters this November is if we would like to move to a system where only those voters in a respective ward would be voting for their representative.  This means that the voter Antonio, who might happen to live in the Fourth Ward, will be only voting for  his representative this November and will trust the good people of the Second to be able to chose their candidate.  It’s simple, it’s clean and it looks a whole lot like…(ahem*cough, cough*)…EVERY OTHER COUNTY STATE AND FEDERAL ELECTION ON OUR BALLOTS!!???

So how will the true ward system help alleviate Eureka’s current crisis of democracy?  Let’s look at the numbers…

In 2014 when Kim and Natalie won elections and Marian ran unopposed (3rd, 5th and 1st Wards respectively) there were 14,325 registered voters in the City and 7,400 of them came out to vote.  Here is a clip from the election results from last cycle’s hotly contested Third Ward.

Kims Election

Remember, 14,325 was the number of registered voters in all of Eureka and all of the Eureka elections  here show the exact same number of ballots cast and registered voters.  Frank and Marian’s uncontested elections had many more “under-votes” (those that didn’t bother to vote even though they returned a ballot) but all the contests had the same number of ballots and registered voters.  Remember also that registered voters is some percentage of eligible voters and some smaller percentage of county residents who also might have deep concerns about our shared future (those under 18 come to mind).

In the 113 days that separate the day a candidate can file their papers with the city (July 18th, btw) to the general election on November 8th under the current system, if a candidate hopes to speak with all of the registered voters of Eureka, she or he would have to talk to 129 per day (assuming registered voters stays relatively consistent.   What kind of conversations would you be able to have other than “Hi, my name is Marian please vote for me this November.  I’ve gotta go, have a wonderful day…. By the way your yard looks beautiful.”

Under the true ward system this number would be divided by 5.  This means, in this imaginary world where a candidate will speak to each and every voter this could conceivably happen as this would mean she would have to contact 25 registered voters per day from the day she files to the day of the election.  This is a number that is obtainable and will mean the potential for more real back-and-forth conversation between representative and constituents during election season, and hopefully will result in more connections between representative and constituents that will continue into the term.

It also, btw, will mean that those without money to use on local broadcast media  or to plaster the Times-Standard will have a fairly good chance to make up for this with hard work and a good ground game.  And in this case the ground game will have a chance to be much more substantial.

In the end, that is what the modern day faux-populist conservative is really against.  They will be talking about everything else under the sun this summer and fall in the build-up to this election, but in the end, they will be protecting the status-quo as it allows for those with means, connections, time and organization the best chance to maintain control over local elections.

That is the 80% disenfranchisement that Marian was speaking about last night as the Council voted to put this question on the ballot.  It isn’t that 80% of the people will be disenfranchised, it’s that those people who already know they are going to vote, (and let’s be honest) also know for whom they will vote, will see their influence drop by 80%.

That isn’t disenfranchisement, it’s democracy.

Thank You!

Thank you Linda, Natalie and Kim. Although quite an esoteric topic that may seem way beyond the bread-on-the-table aspects of politics, I believe your vote last night to offer a Eureka voters a chance to return a large dose of democracy to our voting system will mean a more participatory future for city affairs.  Huzzah! (*begins crossing fingers*)

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