[Image via countyofplumas]

Plumas County in Northern California is in danger of running out of election funds after a series of special elections is stretching an already-reduced budget, the election office recently told the county board. The Plumas News has more:

At least one state special election is on the horizon and Plumas County Clerk-Recorder Kathy Williams anticipates more elections to come. She also announced that the elections program is running short of cash.

That was part of the message Williams delivered to members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Her department was also in need of a new company to print official ballots and other related materials, she said.

Special election

Williams’ staff is preparing for a special election set for March 26. This is to fill a seat vacated by former state Senator Ted Gaines who was elected to the Board of Equalization in last November’s general election.

Newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom called the special election Jan. 18. “This action forced the 11 counties in the First Senate District to prepare for this election with only 69 days notice,” Williams explained. “If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote at this special election, we will have to conduct another special runoff election on June 4, 2019.”

The special election is vote-by-mail (VBM). At this time two Democrats and four Republicans are running in the special election.

Williams told Supervisors that if Assemblyman Brian Dahle wins in March, then another special primary election would be called by the governor to fill his seat in the California Assembly.

Election costs in each county vary slightly. For example, in Siskiyou County an election could cost the county between $85,000 and $90,000. But Siskiyou has a larger voter population than Plumas.

The election office’s announcement had the additional effect of introducing policymakers to the challenging world of election funding:

The last election in 2018 cost Plumas County $72,000. Williams estimates the upcoming special election will cost about $50,000 and the state doesn’t reimburse for election costs.

This seemed to come as news to some of the supervisors. Amidst questions and exclamations of disbelief from some supervisors, Williams said that all counties are required to participate in local, state and federal elections, but reimbursement isn’t part of the process. [emphasis added – DMCj]

During special district elections in the county, Williams said the districts are billed following each election. Those who can are encouraged to join an off-year election. Williams said that saves special districts quite a bit of money.

The next special election is May 7 for the West Almanor Community Services District with its 200 or more voters.

Williams said that under elections procedures, the county is supposed to reimburse the elections’ program but that doesn’t happen. She believes that since the elections’ part of her department is funded through the county’s General Fund, that supervisors don’t think it’s necessary.

It appears that part of the issue is a change in budgeting practice that eliminated contingency funding for special elections:

During the 2018-19 fiscal year budget, Williams said the elections budget was $333,284. She told Supervisors that by the end of this fiscal year it would be $50,000 to $100,000 short.

Williams said that she used to include additional funds in case special elections were called. But then a budget specialist hired by the county to examine all departmental budgets told supervisors “if you don’t use it you lose it,” and Williams finds she’s short of money.

And it’s not just the cost of an actual election that’s part of the elections department costs. There are printing costs, postage, wages — everything is included in that budget.

And now her staff is required to do more work quicker. Since the state primary moved from June to March, and the deadline for candidate filing is in December, that’s less time to do the same amount of work.

I feel like I write about this kind of situation a lot: special elections accumulate, money runs short – and everyone involved is amazed that more funding isn’t available. I wonder how many more times I’ll write about it before policymakers at the federal and state level realize that a steady stream of reliable funding for local election administration to help cover the costs of elections at “their” level would reduce the number of these fiscal fire drills that seems to crop up again and again across the nation. I’m pretty sure it won’t be zero … stay tuned.