The state of California would foot the bill for future election recounts triggered by close races under proposed legislation introduced Thursday by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco.
The Peninsula lawmaker announced plans for such a law during the legislative recess and followed through yesterday by gutting an existing Senate bill. The proposed bill would require a state-funded recount when the difference between second and third place is one-tenth of 1 percent.
Mullin saw the need for change after state controller candidate John Perez, a termed-out Los Angeles assemblyman, sparked a recount in the June primary results. The race highlighted issues that are long due for fixing, according to Mullin.
“Fourteen years after Bush v. Gore and the Florida fiasco, California still has an antiquated system for recounts and it needs reform,” Mullin said.
Only 481 votes separated second-place finisher Betty T. Yee and Perez in third place. The two top vote-getters face off in November so the recount was to decide who would run against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
The recount, funded by Perez, began but he called it off after only acquiring a handful of new votes.
The effort spurred discussions about reforming the existing rules governing recounts. As it stands, candidates wanting a recount pick up the tab and choose which counties and in what order they want the manual tally done. The opponent can then do the same if votes are lost, hypothetically going back and forth until all votes are counted or money is exhausted.
Each county also has its own tallying policies, creating a patchwork approach rather than a uniform system. In Perez’s case, San Mateo County made his list and was due to begin counting after San Bernadino and Fresno counties finished. Perez killed the effort before that time came.
Had Mullin’s bill been in place at the time of the June primary, an automatic recount would have occurred. One-tenth of 1 percent pencils out to about 5,000 votes in a primary and 10,000 votes in a general election. The 481 votes between Perez and Yee is equal to one-hundredth of 1 percent.
Mullin acknowledged the state will spend about $1.9 million per recount but noted it would rarely be used. For example, he said, the June controller race is the only one in the last 20 years decided by a margin less than one-hundredth of 1 percent.
Besides, he said the cost is worth the results.
“It’s a modest price to pay to give voters confidence that the right winners will be chosen in an election. It’s a fail-safe kind of measure rarely utilized,” Mullin said.
The cost and counties’ ability to finish a primary recount before a November general election are the most likely concerns to be raised, he said.
Twenty states already have some form of publicly funded recount mechanism, he said.
“We should be 21,” he said.
Assembly Bill 2194 has an urgency clause so if adopted would take effect in time for the November 2014 California general election. Such a clause requires a two-thirds threshold but Mullin said he’s shooting high to get the changes sooner rather than later.
“I’d like to get it in place while Perez is still in the building and people are reminded how this process didn’t work properly and why we need reform,” he said.
Mullin is not stopping at reforming the state recount procedures. His office is also looking at crafting a process for presidential elections in time for 2016.
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