Originally published by Election Academy.
The State of California, like some other states, has an “unfunded mandate” law that requires the state to make money available for new legislation that imposes costs on counties. In practice, those mandates can be “suspended” for budgetary reasons, leaving localities holding the bag on costs.
This practice has been particularly difficult for California’s election officials, who are owed more than $100 million collectively for a variety of suspended mandates – the most significant of which involves permanent absentee balloting and vote by mail. That’s why county officials were pleased to see that last year the Legislature asked the Department of Finance (DoF) to write a report analyzing the election mandates and making recommendations to the governor about how to address them.
DoF’s report came out on March 30 – and it’s likely not at all what the counties were expecting. In essence, DoF recommends that the Governor consider making the mandates “permissive” rather than “mandatory” – meaning that counties could choose whether or not to comply and the state could be excused from owing the mandates. In particular, the report suggests that counties could (actually should) save money by moving primarily to a vote by mail system and reserving physical polling locations for areas where they are most needed. In particular, DoF notes the lower per-voter cost for vote by mail and suggests that counties are obliged to shift their efforts in that direction as part of their duty to minimize costs. In fact, DoF has initiated an audit of a single county (Orange) to identify the supposed savings involved.
Needless to say, the counties are unimpressed. In a letter to policymakers, the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) assails the report, especially its analysis of in-person vs. vote by mail costs:
Firstly, while over half of California voters have cast ballots from home in the last two statewide elections, counties still must bear the expense of providing a polling place for those same voters. Any voter who is mailed a ballot may appear at a polling place, for any reason, and request to vote in person. In Shasta County in November of 2014, 65% of provisional ballots were cast at polling places by vote-by-mail voters. This is not uncommon.
Later in this same section, the report states, “One option…is to amend Elections Code section 3003 to make the mandate permissive. Local agencies will continue providing the more cost-effective vote-by-mail ballot system…” This is another assumption that has dangerous possible consequences. It seems unlikely that the Department wants to undermine the election system currently operating in counties in California, but statements like this one and others in the report have that effect. Making vote-by-mail ballots availability permissive (not mandatory) in state law could lead to inconsistent application amongst counties, a result that could disenfranchise some voters.
CACEO’s letter concludes with a swipe at DoF and its analysis:
The above illustrates the single dimensional, shallow nature of this report. We are, frankly, extremely disappointed that the Department of Finance seems to believe that elections in California are performed in a vacuum. The reality is, of course, that elections in California must serve a variety of populations; as our citizens are varied, so are our voters. Serving voters with differing language needs and disabilities are crucial populations that cannot be served through vote-by-mail programs alone. This is dictated by state constitutional requirements, as well as current state and federal law.
The overall tone of this report seems to be an answer searching for a justification, instead of honest fact-finding that leads to a conclusion.
It will be interesting to see what (if any) impact the DoF report and CACEO’s response have on funding for the suspended election mandates in the California state budget. Up until now, those funds have not been forthcoming – and absent a huge change of approach this exchange suggests they may not start flowing again anytime soon.
Still, it’s a rare inside look at the fiscal dance that takes place within state government when it comes to funding for election administration.
Doug Chapin is the Director of Election Academy and the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.