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Nearly 5 million voters chose to cast their ballots by mail when Gov. Jerry Brown was elected in November, representing almost half of all votes cast in the statewide contest.
Now election officials are warning that a piece of Brown's budget proposal could put the increasingly popular form of balloting, and the integrity of the voting process, in jeopardy.
As part of his plan to close a projected $25.4 billion deficit, Brown wants to stop reimbursing local governments for the costs of complying with various state laws, including the 1978 law that gives all California voters the option of casting their ballots by mail.
Department of Finance officials have scored roughly $32.6 million in savings by not paying the tab for several years' worth of reimbursement claims for specific costs associated with six election mandates. They include establishing a permanent absentee voter system, extending the voter registration window to 15 days before an election and processes for registering voters.
Ending the reimbursements makes the associated laws optional for local governments in the coming fiscal year.
County election officials are still assessing the actual impact Brown's proposal would have on election departments and voters if adopted by the Legislature, but California Association of Clerks and Election Officials President Gail Pellerin called the move "not a wise policy."
"Everyone is going to have to take a cut, everyone is going to have to give a little bit, but I think suspending these vital programs voters have come to rely on is not a good direction," said Pellerin, the Santa Cruz County clerk.
Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer cautioned that suspending the mandates does not necessarily mean counties will suspend the services.
Palmer said the proposal is meant to save money in the next fiscal year by freezing reimbursements for claims filed for past years. Past years' claims, but not costs in the next fiscal year, could be reimbursed later if the mandate is reinstated in future budgets.
But Pellerin and others doubted whether they could keep the programs running without the money. They warned that changes could create confusion among voters accustomed to voting by mail.
"I can already hear the screams if I take 220,000 to 230,000 permanent absentee voters and tell them, 'I'm sorry, but you're voting at the polls,' " said Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder Steve Weir.
Kim Alexander, founder and president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said failing to fund the mandates could compound the existing problem of "uneven access to the voting process at the local level."
"Given how little money counties have already to fund elections, it would be a huge blow," Alexander said.
In Sacramento County, the funding loss would be an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in the next fiscal year, according to Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill Lavine.
"It definitely will add to the stress if I have to find another million dollars in my budget just to maintain the level of service I have right now," she said.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, said while he thinks the state should reimburse counties for costs it forces on them, there are some cases in which removal of mandates could have a beneficial effect.
"In many instances, the state mandates things that the local governments don't want to do and sometimes the local governments find a cheaper way to do it," he said. "If there's a removal of the mandate and counties can revert to the old way of voting, there might be a better way to (provide those services)."
And some say the more costly policies, including the absentee voting and permanent absentee list laws, still merit review.
"I know the way it's working right now is not in everyone's interest and is wasteful," Alexander said, noting a report that found more than 23 million absentee ballots have been lost or never returned since California created a permanent vote-by-mail system in 2002.
The list of more than 50 mandates slated for suspension include costs related to AIDS testing for inmates, holding periods for stray pets at animal shelters and a provision of open-meeting laws requiring public notice of meeting agendas, amounting to a total projected savings of $227.8 million in the next fiscal year.
Election mandates Gov. Jerry Brown wants to suspend:
Absentee voting: Requires that absentee ballots are available to all voters. Projected savings: $28.6 million
Tabulation by precinct: Requires county collection officials to tabulate absentee ballots by precinct and make that information available to the Legislature. Projected savings: $46,000
Brendon Maguire Act: Requires that a special election is called in certain cases when a candidate dies before Election Day. Projected savings: $3,000
Permanent absentee voter: Requires election officials to maintain a list of permanent absentee voters and automatically mail them a ballot. Savings: $1.9 million
Voter registration: Covers voter registration activities, including allowing voters to register by mail and processing costs. Savings: $2.1 million