Our View: Will this be the election that goes on forever?

July 8, 2014 

The California Secretary of State’s Office has two critical election functions – to make certain our voting machines work properly and to certify the results. When it comes to actually running elections and counting votes, that’s the job of county registrars.

Unfortunately, the California system for statewide election recounts is confusing and unfair. In a shakedown cruise initiated by controller candidate John A. Pérez, many fear the statewide recount will be difficult to finish in time for the next election and might not even be valid when it’s done.

It leaves us asking, is this what we really want?

Stanislaus and Merced were two of the 15 counties chosen by Pérez for the recount. Stanislaus will recount 221 of 357 precincts, while Merced is one of two counties asked to recount all its votes.

Pérez, the former Assembly speaker, finished third in the June primary behind Republican Ashley Swearengin of Fresno and fellow Democrat Betty Yee. The top two advance to the November ballot. But out of more than 4 million votes cast, Pérez was only 481 behind Yee. His recount request initiated the new statewide system. And already the flaws are apparent.

First, not every vote has to be recounted. Instead, the candidate gets to pick the counties – even the precincts – to be recounted. Next, the recount rolls from county to county, finishing one before starting the next. While the recount can be stopped at any time, another candidate can initiate another recount at any point. And that could start the process all over again.

Is this a recipe for endless vote counting?

“Absolutely,” said Lee Lundrigan, registrar of voters in Stanislaus County. “There’s no clear path on this, that’s part of the issue.”

If each county takes a week to recount, as estimated, it could take 14 weeks to finish – meaning the results might be available by early October. That is well past the Aug. 28 deadline for approving the ballots to be printed for the November general election.

Merced County registrar Barbara Levey and Lundrigan were among the 15 registrars who spoke to the Secretary of State’s Office on Monday. “None of us believe it will be completed by (Aug. 28),” said Levey, especially considering that this will be a manual recount – which takes longer.

Counting only some of the votes could cause another problem. Election code 15632 requires any recount to include all votes cast – not just some. In 13 of the 15 counties, only a portion of the votes will be recounted. Will a court have to resolve the difference?

There are significant details yet to be worked out. How will each county know when to start recounting? Who is going to pay for this?

The state doesn’t want to pay, and county officials don’t want to be stuck with the tab, either. As it is, counties are claiming nearly $100 million in state reimbursements for election-related mandates.

There must be a better way, but Lundrigan cautions against trying to fix this on the fly. She’s right to suggest careful deliberation. Still, 22 states require automatic recounts when statewide results are so very close. Doing the same would be costly, but would allow us to get started sooner. Ensuring an accurate vote count is worth it.

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