Counties Administer Most Elections. County governments in California administer most local, state, and federal elections pursuant to various requirements established under state and federal law. County elections officials administer almost every part of voting in California including: processing voter registrations, accepting candidate filings, verifying signatures on petitions to qualify initiatives for the ballot, determining what equipment voters use to cast ballots at polling places, establishing precinct boundaries and poll locations, printing ballots and sample ballots, mailing materials to voters (including ballots for people who vote by mail), hiring and training poll workers and other temporary staff, receiving ballots, and tabulating election results.
Secretary of State Provides Statewide Oversight and Direction. The Secretary of State is the state’s chief elections officer and oversees county administration of all federal and state elections within California. The Secretary of State oversees county administration of elections. Responsibilities include:
Promulgating regulations about how to comply with statute.
Testing and approving all voting equipment (counties may only purchase equipment approved by the Secretary of State, but may choose from among the approved list).
Compiling the tabulation of votes from each county.
Certifying final election results.
Counties Pay Most Ongoing Election Costs. Typically, counties appropriate general fund revenue to pay for costs related to administering elections. Generally, when counties administer elections for other local governments—cities, special districts, and schools—those local governments pay for the cost of those elections. Local governments often pay counties based on the proportion of the ballot dedicated to the local governments’ candidates and issues put to the voters. This cost allocation sometimes is referred to as “ballot real estate.” Neither the state nor federal governments currently provide ongoing funds to counties to administer elections. In the past, the state provided funds to counties to pay for election mandates, which we describe in more detail in the nearby box. Both the state and federal governments have provided one-time funds to address specific needs in elections administration.
The state requires various activities to be performed by counties when administering elections. Proposition 4 (1979) requires the state to reimburse local governments for requirements placed upon them by the state after 1975. These requirements are called reimbursable state mandates. Some required elections activities are reimbursable state mandates. Prior to Proposition 1A (2004), there was no payment schedule for reimbursing local governments for these state mandates. As a result, the state went many years without paying counties for the costs associated with certain state elections requirements. Proposition 1A required the state (1) to reimburse local governments for these outstanding prior-years’ mandates costs and (2) either to suspend or reimburse local governments for state mandates on an ongoing basis. Mandates can be suspended as part of the annual budget bill. When a mandate is suspended, the requirement remains in law but local governments do not have to comply with the suspended mandate requirements in that year.
For many years, the state has suspended election mandates, providing no regular assistance to counties. Currently, the state owes counties about $71 million for outstanding elections mandates incurred in prior years. Despite these mandates being suspended, counties continue the activities associated with the suspended laws—costing counties roughly $30 million in general election years.
HAVA Provided Funding for Voting Equipment After 2000 Presidential Election. Voting equipment and the administration of U.S. elections became a prominent issue following the contested presidential election in 2000. At the federal level, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) established standards for federal elections. To help state and local governments implement the requirements established under HAVA, the federal government provided funding to the states. California received $392 million in federal funds to implement the mandates established under the federal law—$195 million of which was allocated to counties to comply with HAVA voting system requirements. Of the $195 million, the Secretary of State indicates that counties have $32 million remaining for these purposes. (Los Angeles and San Diego counties have the most left with $6.9 million and $7.7 million, respectively.)
Proposition 41 (2002) Provided Counties $200 Million for Voting Equipment. The proposition allowed the state to sell $200 million in general obligation bonds to assist counties in the purchase of new voting equipment that was certified by the Secretary of State. In order to receive bond monies, a county had to expend $1 of county funds to receive $3 of bond monies—a three-to-one ratio of state-to-county money. The proportion of the bond monies available to each county depended on a formula that took into account each county’s number of eligible, registered, and participating voters and number of polling places.
Decertification of Purchased Voting Equipment. In the years following Proposition 41’s passage, some counties replaced defunct punch card voting systems with electronic voting equipment. By 2005, actions taken by then Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and the Legislature imposed certain restrictions on electronic voting systems. In 2007, then Secretary of State Debra Bowen established new rules relating to the testing and requirements of electronic voting equipment. Through these state actions, several counties were forced to abandon their recently purchased electronic voting systems and, instead, rely on paper-based, optical scan technology. Little has changed since 2007—most counties continue to use paper-based, optical scan systems for polling place voting.
Precinct Model of Voting. The traditional voting model relies on precincts—a geographical subdivision of a county determined by a county’s elections official. State law generally requires that each precinct include no more than 1,000 voters (excluding permanent vote by mail voters). Counties with high populations have thousands of precincts. Each address in a county is assigned a precinct. Each precinct has a polling place where voters are expected to cast their ballot. If a voter goes to a polling place other than the one designated for his or her precinct, the voter must cast a “provisional” ballot. Depending on the election, each polling place may have numerous ballot types—for example, at a primary election the polling place may have different ballots for each political party. In a general election, ballots will vary based on the governments and representatives serving the precincts at the polling place. (For example, voters served by two different school districts may be assigned to the same polling place and require different ballots for school board candidates.)
Voting by Mail a Popular Alternative. California voters have the choice to cast their ballots in person at a polling place or through the mail. Voters who choose to vote by mail can do so on a one-time or permanent basis. Voting by mail has become increasingly popular. Statewide, about 12.2 million voters—nearly 63 percent of all registered voters—received a mail ballot in the November 2016 general election. About 70 percent of these vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots were returned (either through the U.S. Postal Service or dropped at polls) to county elections officials to be counted. In total, about 58 percent of the 14.6 million ballots cast in the November election in California were VBM ballots. The share of voters casting VBM ballots in that election varied across the state from fewer than one-half of voters casting their ballots by mail in Los Angeles, Lassen, and Merced Counties to more than 90 percent of registered voters voting by mail in Napa, Alpine, Plumas, and Sierra Counties.
Vote Center Model of Voting. Under SB 450 (Chapter 832 of 2016), counties may replace the precinct model with a new “vote center” model. Rather than opening thousands of polling places, implementing counties will be required to open a certain number of vote centers (based on population). Vote centers will be similar to polling places, but will offer more services than polling places and be open for more days. In addition, under the vote center model, all registered voters will receive a VBM ballot, not just those who have opted to do so. Senate Bill 450 allows 14 specific counties to implement the vote center model in 2018. Currently, five counties are on track to implement the new model for the 2018 election. The remaining counties may implement the model for the 2020 election.
Governor’s Budget Proposes Providing Counties $134 Million for Voting Equipment. The administration estimates that providing $134 million would cover half of the cost to update all counties’ voting equipment. This estimate assumes almost all counties implement the vote center model. (The administration’s estimate assumes that 12 northern, rural counties would maintain polling places. The cost of equipment for the vote center model in these counties is roughly equivalent to the cost of equipment for the polling places model. The total equipment replacement cost for these counties is less than $3 million.) Counties that recently updated their voting equipment would be eligible for some reimbursement. The Governor’s proposal does not require counties to commit to implementing the vote center model to receive equipment funding. Rather, the Secretary of State would be given discretion to allocate the funds based on registered voters and county size.
Counties’ Voting Equipment in Need of Replacement. All but a few counties in the state use voting systems that are more than a decade old. In many cases, components of the systems no longer are supported or produced by manufacturers. In one example, a county’s system had a failed part that no longer is supported by the manufacturer or easy to replace. The county purchased a replacement part through eBay. In another example, a county uses the same system it used in the 1990s. Although this county’s system has been updated periodically, it currently relies on computers that operate on Microsoft Windows XP—an operating system that was released in 2001 and no longer receives free security upgrades or other support from the manufacturer. Both of these examples raise serious concerns about the reliability of the voting system as well as the possibility of a catastrophic failure of voting systems in counties.
Unclear Whether Counties Will Implement Vote Center Model. As noted earlier, only a handful of the authorized counties are moving to the vote center model in 2018. Whether other counties will implement the new system in 2020 is unclear. Counties’ voting models affect the types of equipment they purchase as well as how much equipment to purchase. For the vast majority of counties, adopting the vote center model lowers the cost of replacing their voting equipment.
Effective County Elections Administration Yields Significant Benefits to the State. Counties’ ability to conduct secure and timely elections is a clear state interest. Counties’ administration of elections relieves 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 or equipment.
Provide Funding to Counties Assuming Adoption of Vote Center Model. We recommend that the Legislature direct the Secretary of State to distribute funds based on counties’ equipment costs for implementing the vote center model—assuming the state covers half of those costs. Given the condition of counties’ voting equipment and the state’s interest in effective county administration of elections, state assistance for purchasing new voting equipment is warranted. By providing funding based on the vote center model, counties would have some incentive to implement the new system. Implementing the vote center model, however, would be at counties’ discretion.