The special election to replace Rep. Ellen Tauscher in the 10th Congressional District will cost Contra Costa County at least $856,000 with little prospect of reimbursement because of the state's financial crisis.

"It is a legal obligation of counties to pay for special elections," said Steve Weir, Contra Costa County registrar of voters. "It will come out of the general fund. We have no choice."

Contra Costa County contains 68 percent of 10th District's registered voters and will bear the greatest cost of the election. The district also stretches into Alameda and Solano counties, with 12 and 18 percent of the voters, respectively. A tiny fraction live in Sacramento County.

The state did reimburse counties for the costs of the November 2005 and February 2008 statewide special elections.

And the state has agreed to pay for the May 19 election — $2.1 million in Contra Costa — but the appropriation requires legislation. Given the state's fiscal woes, it is unlikely that Contra Costa will see a dime of that money.

"It's a different era, and we have to react to the circumstances we have," Weir said. "We have to meet all state and federal election laws, but it's all about cost."

The November presidential election cost the county about $10 a voter, Weir said.

With a far lower participation rate expected in a special election, Weir plans to cut that cost to $3 a voter using cost-cutting measures, including:

  • Dramatically reduce the number of polling places. It saves on staffing and equipment costs.

  • Count ballots by hand rather than by machine. It reduces printing costs for the more expensive ballots used in the ballot scanning equipment, and Weir does not have to pay for training poll workers to use the machines or the costs of deploying them to the precincts.

  • Eliminate overtime and weekend shifts. It will take two to three days to count the ballots and produce a final result, but it saves significant amounts of money.

    Residents who have signed up to vote by mail may also lose that service.

    Currently, the state mandates that counties provide permanent vote-by-mail service to voters who want it.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed suspension of the mandate as a cost-cutting measure. Under state law, the state must pay only for mandated programs.

    Contra Costa will discontinue the permanent vote-by-mail service — which adds 15 percent to the cost of the election — if the state will not pay, Weir said.

    Voters can still request a vote-by-mail ballot, but it would no longer arrive automatically.

    The county could save even more money if it were allowed to conduct a mail-only election and eliminate the costs associated with running Election Day polling places, an alternative Weir has supported for several years.

    But critics have successfully blocked legislation that would allow counties the option, arguing that it disenfranchises people who move frequently or lack permanent housing.

    Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics.