Can California Show the U.S. How To Do Elections Right?

California’s June 7 primary election is fast approaching, and the state with the most registered voters in the U.S. is far from ready. For one, the list of candidates currently vying for retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat is so mob-deep that it’s forcing counties to reconfigure their ballots to accommodate all the names. Meanwhile, confusion and resentment is festering among independent voters over a lack of rule uniformity and clarity regarding their right to vote in the primaries. All of this, combined with an expected voter-turnout surge, has led to lawsuits demanding that the state extend its voter registration period up to the primary election date.

However, “The infrastructure’s not in place” for such an extension, Orange County voter registrar Neal Kelley told the L.A. Times.

That’s because the funding is not in place—because California, like most states in the U.S., has still not figured out how to pay for its elections administration, despite its central role in making sure government functions properly. A new study from the budget-reform nonprofit California Forward, however, points to a number of solutions for helping the state finally figure out this mess. And if California can resolve its election-funding woes—a pitiful plight for just about every U.S. state—then perhaps voters could finally cast ballots without waiting in lines longer than the ones at Six Flags.

The key to this, according to the study, is simply modernizing California’s defective ballot machines and antiquated voter registration process. This means mining a lot of R&D for new voting technology—and there’s plenty out there—and rolling out new safe, sound elections applications when needed. But that’s not so simple when the funding to do so is sketchy.

“There is no effective long-term funding mechanism for voting equipment in California,” reads the report. “There is no strategy in place to fund replacement of aging voting systems in the future.”

Caitlin Maple, the author of the report and a research analyst for California Forward’s Election Funding Project, surveyed election officials from 34 of the state’s 58 counties. Here’s what Maple found:

(California Forward)

There’s plenty at stake for California’s upcoming primary and general elections if the state doesn’t fix the problem soon. Take, for example, the problem of fitting all of the candidates running for Boxer’s seat onto the ballot—not to mention a swath of referendum initiatives that politicians are also hoping to stuff on there. The sheer volume of content alone is forcing county officials to redesign voting slips, as well as the machines recording the votes, in ways that hopefully will be less frustrating and confusing to voters. As the L.A. Times explains:

Because counties use a variety of voting machines manufactured by private vendors, there is no universal fix.

Los Angeles County’s electronic voting machines will require two entire pages of Senate candidates. The first page will include a large red warning icon with instructions to vote for only one candidate.

How counties will pay for additional costs related to the supersized Senate ballot remains to be seen. …

In Napa County, [ Voter registrar John] Tuteur estimated the long list of Senate candidates — which, by law, must be randomized on each ballot — will mean some 90,000 test ballots need to be printed for a county with fewer than 69,000 registered voters.

“There’s an additional cost to us,” he said.

Those added costs are borne by the counties up front, with the hope that the state might one day reimburse them. However, there’s almost $119 million in elections claims that the state has failed to compensate and “counties have not been reimbursed in about six years,” according to the report. Which would explain why so many county election officials want a different funding framework entirely.

In April, Governor Jerry Brown approved an additional $16.3 million to cover election costs this year, but that’s just a one-time, stop-gap measure. And even if adequate funding is secured, California still needs to make major changes to its procurement process. The current model allows counties to purchase voting equipment from just three vendors. Such limited options have driven up costs and prevented county election officials from making the kind of timely upgrades needed to ensure an optimized voter experience. From the report:

The current technology procurement system was designed primarily to prevent failure and fraud, and to meet minimum standards. To capture the potential for technology to improve the elections process, California will need to revise the certification and procurement processes to allow for more innovation, competition and value.

Across the country, there are a number of lawsuits underway filed by angry voters and voting-rights advocates over poor elections management in their states or counties. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is in Phoenix, where earlier this year hundreds of people had to wait hours in long lines due to Maricopa County’s questionable decision to close dozens of polling locations. Courts will eventually settle how much wrongdoing took place in these matters—and hopefully before November. But to correct those wrongs, the conversation will inevitably turn to the one issue that legislatures often go far out of their way to avoid when it comes to conducting elections: funding.

As Maple spells out in the study’s report, the only way to change this, in California and beyond, is for counties to develop better collaborative relationships with with peer regional jurisdictions—and most importantly, with the state. And they’ll have to embrace new voting technologies to cut costs and to streamline election procedures.

“In other words,” reads the report, “for California to develop a new and effective funding model, the state will need to modernize some aspects of election administration and governance. California has a much greater chance of developing a financially sustainable system if technology is appropriately deployed, if the state and counties are working collaboratively together, and if individual counties are increasingly efficient.”

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