May 14, 2009

Five Election Changes California Might Have to Consider Given Its Financial Situation

EVERYBODY KNOWS that California's economy is in the tank. Governments at every level are struggling to cut costs and increase revenues - and some are just trying to stay solvent. If this trend continues, vital public services could be either cut significantly or eliminated completely.

The election offices of California's 58 counties are not immune to this dire financial situation. Most are being asked to reduce spending - in San Mateo County which already has the lowest ratio of staff to registered voters of most any jurisdiction in the state, we have been asked to reduce spending through the elimination of positions. The question becomes, "how do you guarantee quality, error-free elections without knowledgeable, skilled election staff - when do these types of reductions begin to affect the core mission of an election office and adversely affect its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the people?

In my opinion, election offices can't continue to operate in the same old way with the current economic realities. Either funding must be maintained or change must come.

But what change?

Here are some possibilities - which do you favor? (If any).

1. Eliminate the mailing of sample ballots (California is one of nine states that mails a paper sample ballot to voters). The same information could be delivered on the web, in newspapers and in special newspaper-like publications and distributed at news stands, libraries and government agencies. Through this measure, printing costs would be reduced and postage costs would be eliminated. One obvious downside is that the voter would have to take some initiative to get the information in order to cast an informed vote.

2. Increase the size of precincts. Right now the size of precincts is limited to a 1,000 registered voters. In some cases, however, half those people vote by mail. Why not allow election officials to subtract out the mail ballot voters and increase precinct size? This measure would save huge amounts of money by not having to hire as many poll workers and would reduce the costs to equip polling places. The downside is that some voters might have to drive slightly longer distances to get to the polls.

3. Allow for all mail elections. Around half the voters in California now vote by mail. Why not give Boards of Supervisors the option to conduct all mail elections? Right now boards do not have this legal authority. This reform would save money because of the costs associated with hiring, training and supporting polling place workers as well as the money necessary for supplies like flags, table, chairs and office supplies. The downside is that people wouldn't have a choice on how and when to vote and some do not trust the postal service with their ballots.

4. Provide for Election Day voter registration. Current law shuts down voter registration 15 days prior to an election. California could move to election day registration like several other states have done. This would potentially encourage more people to vote and reduce the processing costs associated with the ever-increasing number of provisional ballots that must be researched one at a time to ensure the voter has not cast a ballot by mail or at a polling place.

5. Eliminate language requirements for election materials. Federal law mandates that certain jurisdictions provide election materials in languages other than English. Some counties are required to make materials available in nine different languages. Changing federal law would be next to impossible but it would save money at the local level. The downside is that those voters who really need language assistance wouldn't get that assistance.

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