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Budget cuts target mail-in registration, ballots

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Buried on page 620 of the state budget bill are a few small cuts that could change the way we vote.

To save $33 million, the bill [PDF] suspended several state mandates requiring counties to provide voting services many Californians take for granted. The state no longer requires counties to process all voter registration applications they receive by mail or to send out absentee ballots to anyone who wants one. Counties still could provide these services, and many probably will, but they won't be reimbursed by the state.

The governor and Legislature needed the savings to close a budget gap of $26 billion, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the state Department of Finance.

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"That required any number of difficult choices and reductions, this being one of them," Palmer said.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen opposed the mandate suspensions because they could cause "widespread confusion" and possibly disenfranchise some voters, said spokeswoman Nicole Winger.

"There is a risk to voters that they could be treated differently county by county," Winger said. "Some of these suspensions have to do with democracy itself, and some of them have had such minimal savings or even no savings, it wasn't clear why they had to impose them anyway."

Most of the savings come from cutting reimbursement to counties for absentee ballots, an estimated $28.6 million. Suspending the mandate on voter registration applications is expected to save $2.1 million. Other suspended mandates save less.

Palmer explained that the budget suspended all state mandates – regardless of the savings – that were not related to public safety or property taxes.

The secretary of state's office issued a memo [PDF] to county registrars last week to clarify the situation and encourage them to continue business as usual. Counties, for example, don't have to process certain voter registration applications that come in by mail, but they must process all applications delivered in person.

"While the secretary of state cannot require county election officials to ... process all voter registration forms received by mail," the memo states, "doing so will provide a benefit to voters and will ensure people who are legally eligible to register to vote are treated equally in all of California's 58 counties."

Absentee ballots still must be provided to the ill, disabled and those who are out of town on Election Day. But vote-by-mail ballots have exploded in popularity among the general public, encouraged by counties that find them cheaper than traditional voting. Last November, nearly half of all voters mailed in their ballots.

Theoretically, counties now could decline to send out absentee ballots to those registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters. The question is what counties actually will do.

"We really want to do what's in the best interest of the voters, but every county board is going to have to make some really tough budget decisions, and sometimes you have to do things you really don't want to do," said Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. 

Pellerin, the Santa Cruz County clerk, said she won't change her county's election process. Other counties, she said, could choose to make a "political statement" by refusing to provide services that aren't reimbursed by the state.

Los Angeles County Clerk and Registrar Dean Logan said he doesn't expect much fallout from the budget provisions. "Most county registrars are going to realize that they have to register voters," he said.

But the cuts are bad news for already-struggling counties, said Fresno County Clerk and Registrar Victor Salazar.

"I can't say that nothing will change," Salazar said. "I can say that we will make every effort to continue with the same level of election services, because those are critical. You're talking about absentee voting – how can you not do that?"

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