America’s patchwork system of elections invites voter fraud paranoia. Congress should fix that.

To the editor: Our elections have always been a source of pride for Americans and admiration from many countries throughout the world. But the chaos, voter suppression and gerrymandering of late has put a blight on our reputation. Accusations of voter fraud from the president and others have not helped.

Our midterm election is a perfect example. It is time to have a standardized methodology where every state in the union is equal.

Three states — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — conduct their elections exclusively by mail; most others have a mix of in-person and mail-in voting. Some states have electronic ballots that do not leave a paper trail.

Now is the time to have a serious discussion about action that Congress can take on polling places, ballot configuration and equipment. A citizen in one state should have the same opportunity as a citizen in another to vote.

To the editor: Decades ago, a valid excuse was necessary to get an absentee ballot. It was considered our civic duty to be at the polling place on election day.

In 1978 the lines were out the door and down the block as voters passed Proposition 13 to save their homes from the taxman.

No more. Too lazy to go to the polls? Get a mail-in ballot. Too apathetic to re-register at a new address? Just ask for a provisional ballot.

It could easily be argued that our vibrant democracy died sometime after 1978.

Bob Munson, Newbury Park

It’s still hard to teach evolution in too many public school classrooms

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Obergefell vs. Hodges. Supreme Court cases involving the role of religious beliefs in civic life have repeatedly made headlines in recent years. Such conflicts, of course, are not new. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson vs. Arkansas, which struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution in public schools.

Tennessee vs. Scopes (the so-called monkey trial) is perhaps more famous. But teacher John T. Scopes lost that 1925 case, and in 1928 Arkansas — following Tennessee’s lead — enacted its own ban on teaching evolution. It was 40 long years before the U.S. Supreme Court finally validated the demand of a teacher — Arkansas’ Susan Epperson — that students get a complete and accurate science education, including evolution.

The Epperson ruling did not, however, end interference with the teaching of evolution. Over the years, there was a series of efforts to require that the teaching of evolution be “balanced” with alternatives dressed up to seem scientific — first biblical creation, then creation science and finally intelligent design. Each, in turn, failed to pass constitutional muster. The legal situation is clear: The government cannot prohibit the teaching of evolution nor can it require teachers to muddy the teaching of evolution by presenting non-scientific alternatives.

About 60% of the surveyed teachers reported downplaying evolution, covering it incompletely or ignoring it altogether.

Goodness knows the science is settled, too. No credible scientist doubts that evolution is the theoretical and practical core of biology, with more evidence emerging from a rich array of research fields with every passing year. Claiming that evolution remains an open question is as scientifically preposterous as suggesting that the jury is still out on whether matter is made of atoms.

And yet teaching evolution is still challenging in many communities in the United States. Opposition arises because many people mistakenly believe that accepting evolution is incompatible with their religious faith. This point of view is widespread: In a rigorous national survey published in 2008, more than 20% of public high school biology teachers reported experiencing pressure to downplay evolution.

Public battles over the teaching of evolution still erupt almost every year at the state level. In Arizona, the outgoing superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, last year advocated that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in public school science classrooms. She then asked a creationist to help revise the state’s science education standards. These proved to be unpopular moves, though. Douglas didn’t make it past the primary when up for reelection this year. Around the country, state legislatures routinely consider measures aimed at undermining evolution education. Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have anti-evolution laws on the books.

With evolution still a matter of political controversy, it’s understandable that a teacher who wants to cover evolution forthrightly might feel some trepidation, or a teacher who is inclined to skip the topic might feel justified. Indeed, about 60% of the surveyed teachers reported downplaying evolution, covering it incompletely or ignoring it altogether.

So it is not enough to include evolution in state science standards, textbooks and local curricula. To ensure students learn about evolution, we first need teachers who have a confident grasp of evolutionary biology. It is a concern that only about half of the high school biology teachers surveyed held a bachelor’s degree in biology and only around 40% had taken a course specifically in evolution. Many states are incentivizing science teachers to achieve more rigorous qualifications, but it will take time to undo decades — generations even — of evolution avoidance.

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Science teachers also need to know how to handle subjects that are at best misunderstood and at worst deeply distrusted by a segment of their community. When it comes to managing conflict in the classroom, virtually none of them are explicitly prepared. Such preparation is not impossible; successful strategies are being developed, refined and employed. For example, in teaching evolution, providing explicit instruction on the nature of science is extremely effective; it helps students recognize that science and religious faith are different, but not mutually exclusive, ways of understanding the world.

Encouragingly: American attitudes are changing in a way that offers hope for decreased resistance to the teaching of evolution. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that while 37% of those older than 65 thought that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, only 21% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed.

Epperson’s efforts in 1968 were heroic: She risked her job, her reputation and potentially her safety to stand up for the teaching of evolution. Many dedicated science teachers are willing to work to improve evolution education, but they need the support of all of us who value the integrity of science education, to create a world in which teaching evolution no longer requires heroics.

The Camp fire wiped out everything we had and nearly everything we’re familiar with

I am writing this just days after the Camp fire wiped out everything we had and nearly everything we were familiar with. We lived in Magalia, farther up the ridge from Paradise. Both towns have simply ceased to be, except for an oasis here or there, a mobile home or a business spared by the vagaries of wind or fire suppression efforts.

The survivors are scattered, gone to stay with relatives, friends or whatever temporary shelter they could find. We have moved in with our daughter in Sacramento, far from the fire though the smoke has followed us here. People are wearing those white masks meant to protect them from particulates in the air at levels well above what is considered healthy. We joke that minute flecks of our house and our possessions are in that smoke, following us.

Our house and our possessions: just memories now. Two bedrooms, two baths, two-car garage. Nothing at all special about it, though it was perfect for a retired college English teacher and his wife. It contained a lifetime of stuff, a curated museum of our lives, our travels, our loved ones.

Remembering what has been lost is like opening a door on a room we don’t really want to enter. Inside are scenes of times shared and objects loved. The objects are gone — the pictures on the walls, the Christmas tree ornaments that dated back decades, the cards and letters that marked anniversaries, birthdays and daily life, treasured gifts and quotidian necessities.

Our sense of disorientation grows with each passing day as we struggle with the reality imposed on us.

Our sense of disorientation grows with each passing day as we struggle with the reality imposed on us. First the fire, then the protracted escape: to Chico in a cavalcade of cars creeping through forest not yet engulfed by flames. What usually takes no more than an hour took most of the day.

And now comes the tyranny of bureaucracy. An array of technological obstacles and menus and instructions keep us from speaking with or getting help from actual human beings. We have been thrown into a pit of paperwork, usually sans paper: forms that have to be filled out for damn near everything: change of address, insurance claims, FEMA applications, checking account holds on auto-pay for services no longer needed or rendered.

On hold, we hear bad music, and occasional reminders that someone will speak to us sooner or later, assuring us that our call is important. There is an irony in the fact that the primary sources of information are also often the most robotic, the most remote. It’s a Disneyfied world of very real disaster, with happy music and chirpy voices that could hardly seem less appropriate.

Irritability pays occasional unwanted visits. Tears come, too, of course, brushed aside because they are prompted by self-pity that seems inappropriate when so many others have lost so much more. As I write this, 63 are confirmed dead in the Camp fire, and more than 600 are missing.

Even knowing that, there are petty regrets that shouldn’t matter, but somehow insist that they do. On the day before we fled the fire, we went shopping at Costco, and spent a couple hundred bucks on groceries the fire would take just hours after they were unloaded. A few days before that, we had our septic tank pumped. There were almost-new tires on the charred husk of a 15-year-old Subaru sitting on its rims in front of where our house used to be.

The redwood trees I planted to cloister us there are all gone, of course, as are many of the native trees that welcomed us when we moved in nearly two decades ago. The rose bushes are gone, the winter firewood is gone, an odd thing to think about in the context of fire.

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But that’s how this goes. Odd things to think about come to mind constantly, things now ridiculously irrelevant. Attention flits from immediate and pressing concerns to annoyances and minutiae and then to unfocused thoughts about where and how to live next, the enormity of irrevocable change.

What we have come to know, what we are experiencing, is being repeated up and down the state, from what was Paradise to what was Point Dume. We know hearts go out to those of us who lost loved ones or pets or family photos or everything. Thoughts and prayers, sincerely uttered and sincerely received.

It’s customary to end pieces like this on an upbeat note. Magalia strong. Paradise strong. We will be resettled. We will rebuild. Our days will take on routines similar to the ones we used to know, with new pictures on new walls, new rose bushes, new neighbors. The disorientation and the sense of loss will fade, but what is gone will never be entirely forgotten. Not the flight from fear and fire, not the flames rising over the ridge.

Jaime O’Neill is a writer in Northern California.