On May 19, legislators bet that voters would bail them out of their budget mess with a special election that would have raised $5.8 billion toward what is now a $24 billion deficit.

Now that voters have turned them away empty-handed, counties worry that they may be left with a $100 million bill for administering the vote on the state’s behalf.

When legislators drafted the bill to create the special election, they included $10 million for Secretary of State Debra Bowen to oversee the election, but no funds for counties that actually printed and mailed ballots. The governor did include intention to pay counties as part of his signing statement.

Jean Kinney Hurst, legislative representative for California State Association of Counties, says legislators sometimes wait until the actual totals are in from each of the 58 counties before they authorize payment – a process that can take months as clerks certify elections.

In 2005, the May Special election repayment language was included in the May revise and counties saw the money in November.
This year, however, legislators have been vague about how and when they would pay the bill.

Steve Weir, clerk-recorder in Contra Costa County, who is coordinating the statewide bill collection, was listening for mention of reimbursement in the Governor’s proposal Tuesday to pass a May Revise. He was rewarded with a renewed pledge to “borrow” $2 billion from local governments.

“We will need a special bill this time,” Weir said. “I will be happy if we get paid this year.”

For Contra Costa County where 150,618 (28.7 percent) of 524,229 voters turned out, that cost could add up to $3.2 million.

In Los Angeles, where 863,293 out of 4.3 million voters (19.9 percent) cast a ballot, the price tag was $28 million.

“It becomes a cash flow issue,” Weir said. “That is half of my budget for an entire even number year.”

The estimated $60 to $100 million counties spent to pull off the election is relatively small compared to the almost $8 billion California State Association of Counties estimates they could lose in the May Revise. However, the millions each county would have to find could be a significant issue because it was not budgeted and must now come from already-strapped general funds.

It’s an issue of principle. It is only appropriate that if the state calls a special election that they fund that election,” Hurst says.

The requirement that counties implement the civic right to vote predates Proposition 13 in the state constitution. However, the job is seen as a type of mandate and a burden on counties, said Weir. Therefore the state reimburses counties for the service.

In the interest of saving money, Weir suggests exploring more efficient ways of conducting voting. He has already eliminated overtime for staff, a decision that will stretch out the certification process at a time when many workers would be putting in 80-hour weeks. He also operated fewer precincts in what was expected to be a low turnout election compared to the presidential election.

Another option – particularly for special elections – would be to shift to all mail-in ballots with the use of some super-polling places. “I know this is controversial, but it would save money,” Weir says.

A half mail-in, half manned polling station election is the “worst case” or most expensive option at $7.50 per voter, according to Weir’s estimates. In his experience, an all mail-in election averages about $3.50 per voter.

A 2007 City of San Diego study concluded that a mail-only ballot can save 20 percent to 70 percent or cost more that a traditional polling place election depending on the election and whether any super polling places are included.

Weir also pointed out that a mail-only ballot and can result in higher turnouts.

Weir just managed an all mail-in ballot for an 80,000-person school district with 52 percent voter participation.

Alpine County ran an all mail-in ballot operation for the special election and had one of the highest turnouts. Of the 799 registered voters in the county, 347 or 43.4 percent sent in their votes.

Alpine County Clerk Barabara Howard estimated that she will have spent $15,000 to $20,000 once all the bills have been paid.
Weir is not the only one talking about new ways to conduct elections. Alternatives to Election Day Polling Site Voting is on the agenda for the California Association of Clerks & Election Officials conference in July.