(Photo Credit: Joe Philipson)
The state budget has drawn controversy over the last week, but one topic that has been swept under the rug – again – is the growing cost counties have for carrying out the changes the state makes to voting laws. Most importantly, the state isn’t funding the extra work and extra money required like it is supposed to, and no change is made to this in the new budget, nor is any of the money owed to counties accounted for within the budget.
However, one group – the California Voter Foundation – is refusing to allow the topic to go unexplored. In a op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, president and founder Kim Alexander stressed the negative impact on elections we could see if the state continues to refuse to fund the mandates it imposes on counties.
“If [Sacramento] County has to cut its budget further due to a lack of state mandate funding, voters could see a reduction in popular services such as vote-by-mail ballot drop-off sites and Saturday voting before election days,” Alexander wrote. “Losing these services will likely slow down counting if more vote-by-mail ballots flood into polling places on election days, as they require extra time to process.”
The money that counties are missing out on is far from chump change. The state hasn’t allocated funds to counties to keep up with their mandates since 2009, when they paid $30 million total to 58 counties. Considering it’s been four years and multiple elections later, counties throughout California are owed millions. Los Angeles County alone is owed $20 million. San Diego County is owed $9 million, and both Orange County and Sacramento County are owed $4 million.
Considering the money at stake, why are so few people talking about election funding? “It’s been described to me as a blip on the radar,” Alexander said. “We only come around to it once every two years. That’s a real challenge, whereas something like education and dental care, those are issues year round. It’s not a juice issue: there’s no vested, well heeled, well financed interest group that has a stake in election policy.”
These interest groups are the ones that often keep issues in the public and legislative eye. “I recognize that special interests that have a lot of money and pass around a lot of campaign contributions tend to get a lot of airtime in Sacramento,” Alexander said. “Maybe I’m a little cynical about it because of watching House of Cards from Netflix, but that is how politics works.”
For a state that is tied for a dismal 45th in voter turnout, the prospect that things could get worse seems impossible, but Alexander says that’s a real possibility. “That’s where we’re headed,” she said. “If counties increasingly have to cut costs, then we’re going to see situations like we’re already seeing in some counties like Fresno County, which is no longer meeting the state requirement for how many polling places they have.”
And considering how poorly California ranks in voter turnout, what’s even more disturbing is that tens of thousands of votes aren’t being counted. “In the last election, one percent of vote-by-mail ballots weren’t counted – that’s 68,000.” These votes weren’t counted for a variety of reasons, generally that they arrived late. But some voters may be making the same mistakes in their ballot every single election, and they don’t know have any way of knowing because counties lack funds for voter outreach.
Counties need this money to make the election process the same across all counties. “California is doing many things right in the election world, but being ranked 45th in terms of turnout means that the public’s voice is muted on local, state and national issues,” California Forward’s Caroline Bruister said. “California Forward believes that providing adequate funding for administering elections is key to maximizing voter participation, as well as giving all Californians a voice in making their government work.”