California’s beloved vote-by-mail system will remain largely intact, despite state legislators’ raid on its relatively small pot of dollars. County election clerks say they likely will scrape up the $33 million the state sliced from the budget for elections. Permanent vote-by-mail allows voters to sign up once and automatically receive ballots. Under the old system, voters who wished to vote by mail requested a ballot each election.
Nearly half of the 10.3 million residents who cast ballots in November did so through the mail. The percentage topped the halfway mark in most counties, offering further evidence that voting by mail has become an indispensable feature for many.
However, the fact that the fate of permanent vote-by-mail service rests with each of California’s 58 counties now that the state suspended reimbursement is prompting voting rights advocates to rekindle their calls for a stronger state role in elections. California’s decentralized election system means counties could “decide to eliminate the permanent vote-by-mail option,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “Voter access is already uneven from county to county, and the suspension of the mandates is only going to make it worse.
“What do we tell voters when they want to know if they can vote by mail?”
California law mandates that counties offer permanent vote-by-mail, but the law also requires the state to pay for it. With no state funding, counties may opt out — although it appears none plan to do so.
At the annual California Association of Clerks and Election Officials convention in South Lake Tahoe last week, none of the 45 counties represented indicated that they would discontinue permanent vote-by-mail.
“Not every election official has the sole discretion to make that decision, though, so each county will have to decide what they are going to do during these tough fiscal times,” said Gail Pellerin, the association’s president and Santa Cruz County clerk. “Some counties may decide they cannot afford it. Tough cuts are being made everywhere.”
California has paid counties $88 million in the past three years for costs associated with permanent vote-by-mail and voter registration programs, according to the State Controller’s Office.
Counties may be able to recoup some of next year’s election costs from cities and other local agencies.