Election recount bill introduced: California would fund tally triggered by close races

Kevin Mullin

As the county’s elections office gears up for its turn manually recounting ballots in the state controller’s race, a Peninsula legislator is proposing modifications which he said will make the process fair to all.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, plans to introduce a bill addressing recount procedures when the Legislature returns from its summer recess in early August.

“It’s 14 years after Bush v. Gore and we have this arcane system for recounts. It’s totally unworkable,” Mullin said.

The details aren’t set in stone yet but options include establishing a threshold that automatically triggers a recount in very close races — Mullin said after speaking with the Secretary of State’s Office a good starting point is looking like one-tenth of 1 percent. Other ideas are developing a recount standard for all counties and having the state foot the bill for recounts.

Mullin said these possibilities level the playing field because currently candidates wanting a recount must pick up the tab themselves — leaving those without the resources unable to afford it — and are subjected to different policies in different counties.

The counties are a patchwork of systems, he said, and wealthy candidates could potentially abuse the recount process by keeping it going indefinitely.

Mullin said a statewide recount is estimated to cost about $3 million which he called fairly reasonable for a state of 40 million people.

The recount would be available for the second- and third-place finishers in a June primary and first- and second-highest vote-getters in a November general election.

The process Mullin hopes to reform is playing out right now in the state controller’s race. Assemblyman John Perez, D-Los Angeles, is demanding an unprecedented recount by hand in 15 counties because only 481 votes separate him from second-place finisher Betty T. Yee, a member of the California Board of Equalization. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin finished first.

Under current recount guidelines, Perez not only pays for the process but also gets to pick the order of counties and precincts in which it happens.

Kern and Imperial counties are counting first and nearly done. Next up are San Bernadino and Fresno counties. San Mateo County follows fifth unless Perez calls off the recount before that point. Perez has picked up a few new votes during recounts in the first two counties.

In San Mateo County, Perez finished first with 30.8 percent of the vote followed by Yee, Republican David Evans and Swearengin. Perez beat Yee by 2,171 votes. Perez wants recounts in 247 precincts here.

Mark Church, chief elections officer of San Mateo County, said he wasn’t taken aback by Perez’s request.

“Its not unexpected, quite frankly. When a statewide race is this close, it’s not a surprise,” Church said.

Church estimates the county’s recount will cost around $65,000 which will be borne by Perez.

San Mateo County must prepare for its recount as Fresno County does its tally which means getting ready even though Perez could theoretically pull the plug beforehand.

“Technically we’re supposed to be paid in advance but we have no choice,” he said.

The price tag includes $956 for each recount board — a panel of four who perform the recount — and about $17,000 in preparation work. Church said he needs about 24 extra-help staff to do the work but challenges include not knowing the exact dates of the county recount and people being gone on summer vacations.

Once underway, Church predicts the recount will take eight days using six boards.

Aside from the pending recount bill, Mullin said he is also pursuing future legislation to standardize county-by-county vote counting and reporting procedures of absentee ballots dropped off at polling places on Election Day. The goal, he said, is avoiding delays like those that plagued the controller’s race as votes were tallied and reported on the secretary of state’s website.

Mullin cited one county which didn’t begin counting absentee ballots dropped off at polls until weeks after Election Day. Other counties reported different numbers than what was reflected on the secretary of state’s website, he said.

“There was a real breakdown and we need to take a close look at what these counties’ individuals processes are,” he said.

Mullin expects that legislation to happen in 2015 after he’s first tackled the recount reform. While his proposed changes won’t have any impact on the controller’s race, Mullin said, depending on the level of support, it may be pushed as an urgency ordinance in time for the November election.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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