California should develop a new way to pay for elections administration that can control costs, improve voting systems and evolve the tension-filled relationship between state and county governments into a cooperative partnership, according to a new analysis by California Forward.
The analysis, titled “Investing in California’s Democracy: Building a Partnership for Performance,” calls for replacing the antiquated “mandate reimbursement” process with a state contribution for the costs associated with the election of state officials and statewide ballot measures. The analysis concluded that most states share directly in these costs, and provides options for doing so.
The analysis also identified a powerful opportunity to structure the state’s contribution as an incentive for counties to improve their operations and reinvest savings in new technologies that can reduce costs and improve the voter experience.
While the research set out to explore funding models, the need to replace California’s voting systems places technology design and procurement at the cornerstone of fiscal and operational decisions. The state needs to revise its certification and procurement procedures to allow for more innovation, competition and value as the systems are replaced. The counties also can be more innovative – and some already are, and they should be encouraged to work together to achieve economies of scale and hold down costs.
This new model is in stark contrast to the legacy funding arrangement, which requires counties to pay for most election operations. If the state requires counties to do something different, it must reimburse for those mandates.
But the current reimbursement system devolved from costly and time consuming to frustratingly broken when the state suspended the mandates and the reimbursements during the Great Recession. As a result, counties have not been reimbursed for most election mandates since 2010.
The tension over mandates, reimbursements and suspensions is a friction point in the complex and often acrimonious state-local fiscal relationship.
“This is an opportune time in our state’s history to develop a new framework that fairly distributes costs, provides reliable funding and encourages continuous improvement,” said Jim Mayer, president and CEO of CA Fwd. “This analysis provides detailed information on current operations, challenges and opportunities. A new funding model would replace conflict with the capacity and incentives for a collaborative and efficient elections system.”
The analysis, available on the CA Fwd website, emphasizes the state has two significant opportunities to help pay for elections in ways that over time will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of election administration:
- Execute adequate, fair, sustainable and shared funding between counties and the state for operational costs.
- Create a special fund for technology procurement that also incentivizes improvement among the counties.
“Understanding election costs can help to inform the public about the importance of properly funding elections, in addition to understanding how policy decisions can drive election costs throughout the state – we are hopeful that by shedding light on how elections are funded, and the costs associated, that decision makers will ensure that proper election funding remains an important topic,” said Neal Kelley, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials and registrar of voters for Orange County.
The report includes quantitative and qualitative data on election operations in other states, as well as counties within California. That information was reviewed and discussed with election officials, county representatives, advocacy organizations, state agencies and other stakeholders, which informed the conceptual model outlined in the document.
“I wish democracy was a low-budget affair, but from voting booths to ballot information brochures, elections cost money. What greater investment can a government make than to better engage and inform its citizens?” said Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and a member of the California Forward Leadership Council.
“Implementing policy that improves the overall function of election administration, repairs government relationships and encourages continual improvement are essential steps toward a more equitable and sustainable election administration system,” said Caitlin Maple, CA Fwd’s principal analyst on the project.
“Developing the right funding model is critical to providing a voting experience that improves public confidence and trust in this most basic act of democracy, and perhaps even voter turnout,” added Maple.
The analysis was supported with a grant from the James Irvine Foundation.