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Last Updated: 3/13/2013
Budget Issue: Reject Governor's proposal to suspend elections mandates
Program: CSM
Finding or Recommendation: Reject Governor’s January budget proposal to suspend all elections mandates because doing so would put elections uniformity at risk. Instead, we recommend that the Legislature (1) fund the elections mandates at a cost of about $60 million in 2013 14 and (2) direct the administration to work with counties to explore alternative funding mechanisms for election mandates.
Further Detail


Three Newly Identified Elections Mandates. Over the last year, the Commission on State Mandates has identified three mandates relating to the procedures local governments follow in administering elections.

  • Voter Identification Procedures.A provisional ballot is a regular ballot that has been sealed in a special envelope, signed by the voter, and then deposited in the ballot box. Provisional ballots may be required to prevent (1) unregistered individuals from voting or (2) registered voters from voting twice. Chapter 260, Statutes of 2000 (SB 414, Knight), requires local elections officials to compare signatures on provisional ballot envelopes with signatures on voter registration materials and, if the signatures do not match, reject the provisional ballot. The commission found that these voter identification requirements constitute a reimbursable mandate and estimated the statewide cost of this mandate to be about $6.4 million.
  • Permanent Absent Voters II.In the early 2000s, a series of legislation (Chapter 922, Statutes of 2001 [AB 1520, Shelley]; Chapter 664, Statutes of 2002 [AB 3034, Committee on Judiciary]; and Chapter 347 Statutes of 2003 [AB 188, Maze]) made all voters eligible for permanent absent voter status, instead of limiting eligibility to voters with specific disabilities or conditions. The commission ruled that local government costs to maintain lists of permanent absent voters is a reimbursable mandate and estimated its statewide cost to be about $2.3 million.
  • Modified Primary Election.Before 1996, California had a closed primary system that allowed only those voters affiliated with political parties to vote in party primaries. Proposition 198 (1996) created the blanket primary system that allowed voters not affiliated with political parties to vote in party primaries. After the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2000 that the state’s blanket primary system was unconstitutional, the Legislature approved Chapter 898, Statutes of 2000 (SB 28, Peace). Chapter 898 generally restored the law in place before 1996, but also allows voters not affiliated with political parties to participate in party primaries at the party’s discretion. The commission ruled that local costs to comply with Chapter 898 was a reimbursable mandate, but that the scope of this mandate was reduced in 2010 when voters approved Proposition 14, establishing the open primary system in use today. Under the commission’s ruling, local costs to comply with Chapter 898’s requirements are reimbursable for all elections through 2010. In subsequent years, however, the only local costs that are reimbursable are those related to primary elections for President and elections for party officials (elections not affected by Proposition 14). The commission estimated the statewide cost of this mandate to be slightly over $1 million.

Six Long-Standing Election Mandates. Over the three decades that the state’s mandate laws have been in effect, the commission has identified many mandates relating to election procedures. Some of these earlier mandates have been repealed, but six remain. These long-standing mandates include the requirement that counties provide absentee ballots (the Absentee Ballots mandate) and hold a special election in cases when a candidate dies shortly before an election (the Brendon Maguire Act mandate). To achieve General Fund savings, the state suspended these six mandates every year since 2011-12—making local agency implementation of these election requirements optional. Despite the implementation of these elections mandates being optional since their suspension, local governments have continued performing the mandated functions.

Budget Proposal

The Governor’s 2013-14 budget proposes to suspend the three newly identified elections mandates and continue suspending the six long-standing elections mandates. (Because the requirements of one new mandate and a similar long-standing mandate have been consolidated, the budget bill identifies eight elections mandates as proposed for suspension.) When a mandate is suspended, state statutes are not changed in any way, but each local government may choose whether or not to comply with the statutory requirements. Local governments are not required to notify the state if they decide not to implement a suspended mandate.

Analysis and Recommendations

State Has Interest in Election Uniformity. The state has a significant interest in maintaining uniformity in its elections. Many of the state’s elected officials serve districts that span multiple counties. Variation in election policies among those counties would result in voters in the same district having access to different voter programs. In a single state Senate district, for example, voters in one county might be allowed to vote absentee while voters with identical circumstances in an adjacent county may be denied an absentee ballot. Thus, suspending elections mandates could lead to inconsistencies in elections, voter confusion, and possibly lower turnout.

Recommend Legislature Fund or Repeal All Elections Mandates. Suspending elections mandates poses a significant risk to state elections. Specifically, the longer the state suspends these mandates and the more elections mandates the state chooses to suspend, the greater the risk that at least one county will decide not to perform the previously mandated activities. Accordingly, we recommend that the Legislature fund these mandates in the budget bill. Based on prior claims and cost estimates from the commission, the cost of funding all the elections mandates would be about $60 million for 2013-14, with ongoing costs of about $30 million thereafter. If the Legislature determines that some or all of the mandates are no longer in the state’s interest, we recommend that the Legislature repeal the underlying statutes, as doing so would preserve elections uniformity while eliminating the need to reimburse local governments for the costs of the mandate. We believe that the administration’s proposal to suspend the mandates represents the worst option as it carries with it the largest risk for inconsistencies in California elections.

Administration Should Explore Funding Alternatives. Our office has previously noted that the existing process for reimbursing mandates can ignore efficiency, impose significant administrative burdens, and provide different amounts of reimbursements to similar local governments. In addition, for various reasons, state policies funded as reimbursable mandates often receive less thorough annual policy review than state policies implemented by state departments. For these reasons, we recommend the administration work with counties to (1) explore alternative, simpler mechanisms for funding election mandates (such as providing a set level of reimbursement for each voter in the county), and (2) assess whether some mandated requirements could be modified to realize the same goals at lower costs. The administration should submit its recommendations regarding elections mandates to the Legislature along with its 2014-15 proposed budget.