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.