By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The economy looms large over November's general election in a basic way for strapped cities and counties: can they afford it?
In Detroit, the city clerk warned last week that the Rust Belt city would have trouble holding the November 6 presidential election under a slimmed-down budget the mayor proposed to address years of deep financial problems.
In Jefferson County, Alabama, the local government was so short of cash for elections that it used road repair crews to staff the state's Republican presidential primary last month.
And in South Carolina, a $500,000 shortfall after the state's Republican primary in January led elections officials to consider a sponsorship deal with comedian Stephen Colbert, who plays a mock conservative pundit on his late-night TV show.
With cities and counties across the United States in dire financial straits, many local officials are struggling to come up with the millions of dollars they will need to hold the November 6 elections. That is likely to mean fewer election workers and long lines for voters, which could reduce turnout.
It is a problem that could affect candidates and political parties in November but particularly President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats, who are relying on support from big cities such as Detroit.
High-turnout elections typically are better for Democrats, who usually fare well among low-income, minority and less-educated voters whose election turnout is inconsistent, said University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin.
For example, he added, "The people with the least flexible job and day schedules are more affected by those long lines, and at least to some extent those may be hourly workers who may lean Democratic."
New, stricter voter registration laws in some states such as Florida could exacerbate the problem by raising the need for more elections workers to verify voters' eligibility.
Local governments across the nation are planning to shift costs - putting off road repairs for a few days while transit crews work on elections, or borrowing workers from other departments to help count votes.
But they also are laying off staff who would have helped with voter questions, and cutting back the hours that polls are open.
Besides raising constitutional questions about whether some people will have enough opportunity to vote, the situation could have an impact on close elections, analysts say.
In 2008, 97 percent of Detroit voters backed Obama, so a polling problem there might affect what could be a close statewide race against Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee for president.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey told the Detroit Free Press last week it would not be possible to conduct the presidential election for city residents under Democratic Mayor Bing's latest budget, which cuts 2,500 city jobs - roughly 25 percent of the city's work force.
Obama won Michigan in the 2008 election and is favored to defeat Romney there in November, but the vote could be close, analysts say. Romney is the son of a former Michigan governor, and a recent poll showed Obama leading there by just 4 points.
Detroit saw turnout of about 50 percent in 2008, which many observers attributed to the $1.5 million city authorities spent on the election, along with the enthusiasm for Obama's campaign among African Americans.
This time, if elections problems contribute to lower turnout among the city's 550,000 eligible voters to 45 percent, that could mean more than 25,000 fewer votes for Obama - a number that could be the difference in a close statewide election.
The U.S. presidential race is a state-by-state election in which candidates compete for electoral votes assigned to each state. A candidate needs 270 to win; the winner in Michigan will get 16 electoral votes.
Detroit "is 85 percent black and it is probably at least that much, maybe more, Democratic," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "If you've got an election that's at all close in the rest of the state, there's no question that Detroit could determine the outcome."
Bing's proposal would cut the presidential election budget to $737,000 from $1.2 million, officials told the Free Press.
City officials said cuts at the election department were necessary, but that they would fully fund the November 6 election - even if it meant making cuts elsewhere.
"Despite the headlines that you have seen, the city will make sure that there is the money for the election. Period," an official in the mayor's office said.
Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the party is "confident that (Winfrey and Bing) will be able to work it out so that we will have a successful election in November."
SCRAMBLING IN ALABAMA
Alabama is an overwhelmingly Republican state, but Jefferson was one of the few counties there that backed Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008.
Last month, local officials scrambled to keep the Republican primary running after Jefferson County - home to Birmingham, Alabama's largest city with about 230,000 residents - filed what could become the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and slashed its work force.
"We recruited truck drivers from road repair to deliver and pick up voting machines. There were no potholes repaired during those days," said Barry Stephenson, chairman of the county's board of registrars.
The county used to have 40 to 50 people in the field to help run elections in 117 precincts. No such luck in last month's Republican primary.
"We went into the primary with 18 folks in the field and crossed our fingers," Stephenson said. "Nothing major happened."
The Republican primary was held without incident (former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum won), but the problems raised concern about the voting in November, when crowds at polling places are expected to be much larger.
'SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH MONEY'
Analysts say it is too early to know how budget squeezes will play out at the polls seven months from now.
But they expect more stories of funding problems to surface as Election Day nears, especially given such new laws as tougher voter identification requirements, which will force local election officials to hire more supervisors.
It makes sense for cash-strapped cities and counties to seek less expensive ways to hold elections, said Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University in Virginia.
He said there are about 20 U.S. cities and counties in dire financial condition.
"There's simply not enough money in the bank and not enough tax revenues to do it, so something's gotta give," he said.
Opponents of the new laws say higher costs will add to the burden on states and counties and force cost-cutting that could make it harder to vote.
In Florida, a politically divided state that will be crucial in the presidential election, officials will need to spend to enforce a new registration law passed by the Republican-led legislature.
Among other things, the law cut the time for early voting to eight days from 14, and eliminated a rule allowing voters to update their address at polling places and still cast a ballot.
"They're reducing the number of precincts and increasing the number of (voters) per precinct. And they're relying on the fact that people are relying on early voting, and at the same time they're reducing the number of hours. So voters are going to be caught in a Catch-22," said Jeanette Senecal of the non-partisan League of Women Voters, which has filed suit to block the law.
"The budget issues," she said, "can have a very significant impact."
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles in Washington, Eric Johnson in Chicago and Verna Gates in Birmingham; Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu)