Series Intro: How administering elections in California varies by county

150 150 Catherine Shieh

You may not have visited your County Registrar of Voters website lately, but it’s a treasure trove of useful information during and outside of election season. You have the right to basic voter information, various tools to help you vote, and campaign finance disclosure documents from all candidates. Open data, enforced by county officials,  instills trust in government and involves constituents in the political system. In turn, transparency in our elections not only helps the public but also  elected representatives and elections officials alike by giving them the same info John Q. Public gets.

However, bringing transparency to voter data and expanding the roles of the County Elections officials is harder than one might think. With each county managing its own systems that serve their respective community of voters, understanding the regional aspects behind administering elections is key to finding the best solutions for each. 

Here are some factors that change how voting and elections are managed:

Size and Population – A small, rural county most likely has a different demographic of voters, different sized budget, and less county officials compared to a large, urban county. Even so, larger and more urban counties (where you will find more voters) typically receive more dollars from the state while other counties are left with their own unique challenges.

Budgeting Priorities – Counties compete against each other for state funding, which can hurt ones that have smaller populations. With a tighter county budget,priorities change and the ability to plan ahead is limited. This is important given that many counties are actually owed money  by the state for administering elections. However, even counties that receive money must cope with a string of earmarks, restrictions, and metrics to fulfill. Despite a balanced state budget, local governments can easily face increased demands for services with less dollars to fullfill those needs. 

Diversity –  A diverse set of voters means a need for multi-lingual assistance and interactive voter tools helpful for those with disabilities. When keeping diversity in the framework for electoral reform, it is important to also acknowledge the necessary time, resources, and training to accommodate for marginalized voters. 

IT Capacity Building – A great county website doesn’t necessarily beneift all voters. Those with disabilities (especially the sight-impared) still cast their ballots without website access. There are also many residents throughout California who lack adequate Internet access to utilize online voter tools. But IT capacity building isn’t just about extending voter resources beyond the website, it also means a savvy use of technology and proper training among staff. Forward thinking use of technological resources is a must for leadership in this area. 

California Forward is working with like-minded organizations seeking to improve accountability and transparency in government as part of the Future of California Elections (FOCE) coalition. The FOCE seeks to overcome systemic barriers to free and fair elections for each and every California voter. Ensuring Californians have the right information empowers eligible voters to participate in our democracy. This is essential to improving the outcomes of government when it comes to policy decisions.

California Forward is kicking off a new series to highlight some best  ways counties are overcoming administrative, technological, and financial challenges across the state. We aim to inspire counties to continue their commitments providing digestible, accessible public data. We want to recognize the innovative pragmatism California county governments display as they find solutions to improve public data sharing.

As an citizen living in California, you can register to vote online, check which candidates are running for what office, opt out of paper sample ballots, lookup your polling location, and find statements that disclose the economic interests of candidates (otherwise known as the Form 700s). 

However, not all counties have this information available, let alone have it easy to find and access on the county website. We have much to do at all levels of government. The fight for transparency in elections is far from over and voter registraiton and participation can always be better.


Catherine Shieh

All stories by: Catherine Shieh