SACRAMENTO — In the disputed race for state controller, all sides can agree on one thing: A vote recount starting Friday is unprecedented in its scope, leaving California officials in uncharted territory.
The process also has illuminated serious shortcomings in California’s election law, which has no provision for an automatic recount, even when the final margin is tight.
Former Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, requested the recount after finishing third in the June 3 primary, just 481 votes behind Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee out of 4.46 million cast in the controller’s race. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, easily came in first, but only the top two vote-getters advance to November’s general election.
It is the first recount in a statewide candidate election in modern California history.
The narrow margin in the controller’s race– less than 0.1 percent – prompted Perez’s campaign to request a targeted recount in 15 counties, beginning Friday in Kern and Imperial. Under California law, a candidate or any registered California voter can request a recount in any precinct in any county, but they must pay for it.
The price is steep. Kern County’s estimated bill is $4,019 per day, which must be paid in advance of each day’s work. In Imperial County, the price is expected to be around $1,640 a day, Registrar Debbie Porter said. Each of those counties could be counting ballots for two weeks or longer.
The expense – estimated at $3 million for a full statewide recount – can be paid only from a candidate’s primary campaign account or by a separate third party, leaving many candidates unable to raise new money for a challenge.
It also is the reason the Perez campaign chose carefully selected counties in which he thinks he could pick up votes.
“This is what happens when the law is broken and there’s no automatic statewide recount in a close race,” Perez campaign strategist Douglas Herman said.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have provisions for an automatic recount when the vote threshold is extremely close. California’s controller race would be within the margin for an automatic recount in all of them, although the state is one of only a few that has a mandatory 1 percent manual tally of precincts for all counties, an attempt to expose any problems.
California’s recount system invites criticism that it is unfair to candidates who do not have large campaign accounts to challenge contested outcomes, even when they believe there has been a mistake.
It’s unclear how much money each candidate has remaining because they have not yet filed spending reports from the primary. Perez had $1.8 million in mid-May while Yee had just $116,000.
If Perez’s selective recount places him ahead at some point, Yee might not be able to pay for a challenge unless an independent donor stepped forward to request it.
“I think what’s unfair is that the candidate has to put up the money in the first place,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.
If there is a concern with the outcome of an election, she said, “it’s the government’s obligation to get the vote count right.”
The state Legislature has balked at the idea of instituting a mandatory, state-funded recount. In 2012, Secretary of State Debra Bowen proposed a cheaper alternative, a “risk-limiting audit” that would allow candidates to request a less intensive statistical audit of votes, but the idea went nowhere.
Bowen’s office said it was aware of only two previous recounts in statewide contests, both in 2012 involving ballot measures on tobacco taxes and genetically modified foods. Proponents sought very limited recounts in both, but neither altered the outcome of the race.
In the controller’s race, county election workers are racing against time, with the clock already having started on the Nov. 4 general election cycle.
Voter information guides are set to go on public display starting July 22. Counties must translate ballots into other languages, print them and begin sending vote-by-mail ballots on Sept. 5.
Meanwhile, there is no deadline for the counties to finish recounting votes from the June primary. Perez’s campaign has asked that recounts do not start in the other 13 counties until after Kern and Imperial are finished. Complicating matters, his campaign could halt the recount at any time.
Yee’s campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, has called the Perez request an unfair “fishing expedition” because he selected counties where he has the best chance of gaining additional votes for recount.
“They don’t have any evidence that there’s been any problem with how the votes have been tabulated,” he said when Perez requested the recount.
Friday’s count will be a “soft start” in both counties, with clerks poring over ballots that were not counted because of problems matching signatures or uncertainty about a voter’s registration. Attorneys and officials from both campaigns plan to monitor the process.
“It’s going to be a very tedious process,” Kern County Clerk Karen Rhea said. “There’s a lot of ballots to count. So it’s going to take a while. We’ve never done anything on this large a scale.”