Friday, March 31, 2017

New Report Sheds Light on Chronic Under-funding of CA Elections

For a while now I've been focused on the chronic lack of funding for election programs and have come to view its absence as the root barrier in the way of many improvements election reform advocates like myself would like to see.

Yesterday I went to the State Capitol to attend and testify at a hearing of the Senate's budget subcommittee where this issue was taken up.

Since 2011, the state has shut down funding for state-mandated election program. These programs resulted from laws passed by the state requiring counties to provide services to California voters, like the option to vote by mail.

A recent survey by the state's Dept. of Finance found that counties continue to perform the mandated duties even though they are no longer getting reimbursed for them.

CVF's letter to the California State Senate asking that funding for election mandates be restored to the state budget outlines the impact this ongoing lack of funding has had on California voters. Here's an excerpt:

In lieu of funding support for election mandates for the past six years, the Legislature has instead chosen to pass optional laws that allow counties to provide certain voter services and programs but do not require them to do so. This pattern of lawmaking creates tremendous inequality in voter services and experiences and undermines all California voters’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law. Counties that have more resources are able to provide additional voter services such as early voting, postage paid vote-by-mail envelopes, and voter outreach programs while counties with less revenue do not. CVF’s analysis of county budget data collected by the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials found that in November 2014, the amount of money counties spent on elections varied from as low as $0.85 to nearly $11 per voter. 
At yesterday's Senate's budget subcommittee hearing, the state Legislative Analyst's Office presented a new report, Considering the State's Role in Elections. It's an excellent compilation of what's been happening in California election administration funding.

This map of the state from the LAO report shows very clearly how voter registration is higher in the wealthier, coastal areas of our state and lower in inland locations like the Central Valley and Inland Empire. While there are surely a number of factors that impact voter registration rates, varying resources at the county level to encourage participation is certainly one of them.

The LAO report also provides a nice summary of Senate Bill 450 (the "Voters Choice Act of 2016") and the numerous regulations underway right now that the Secretary of State's office.

My favorite part of the report, though, is this:
County Administration Yields Significant Benefits to the State. The state derives significant benefits from county administration of elections. These benefits include relieving the state from organizing thousands of local government elections as well as the elections for California’s members of Congress, the State Legislature, other statewide positions (like the Governor and Secretary of State), and statewide initiatives. In fact, in many elections, state issues make up the majority of the ballot. While the state reaps regular benefits from county elections administration, it only sporadically provides funding to counties for elections activities. Counties (and other local governments) generally bear elections’ costs without regular support from the state. 
Effective Elections Administration an Important State Interest. The state has a clear interest in secure and timely elections. Moreover, some level of uniformity across counties in elections administration is valuable. Many legislative and other voting districts span multiple counties. Significant variation in elections procedures across counties could have implications for voter turnout, and by extension, election results.
The report suggests a block grant approach, which is something I've been working on with some fellow advocates for the past year. We have a proposal in development that we will be sharing soon. In the meantime, CVF will continue to work to restore the election mandates funding. Please contact me if you want to get involved!

Thanks to Guy Marzorati at KQED for writing this story, Report: State Still Short-Changing Counties for Election Costs, covering this important subject.