In the wake of an extraordinarily tight primary race for state controller, the Legislature should give priority to reforming outdated election recount laws.
Financial demands on candidates — themselves already at worrisome heights — should not extend to personally paying for recounts in close elections. Voters, meanwhile, will find no solace in paying candidates choosing which areas are recounted. Down that road lies cherry-picked outcomes.
Yet that’s what California law now stipulates, unfairly favoring wealthy candidates who can afford the potential million-dollar-plus price tag for a statewide recount.
The June 3 primary for state controller left the second- and third-place finishers separated by just 481 votes, or 0.01 percent of 4 million votes cast. Second place matters, of course, under the top-two primary system.
Without a provision allowing taxpayer-funded recounts for truly close races, Democrat John A. Pérez, a former Assembly speaker, requested a recount in select areas. He abandoned it after gaining just 10 votes at a price of $30,000. He had hoped to secure the second spot by booting Betty Yee, a fellow Democrat and member of the state Board of Equalization. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, finished first.
Pérez’s targeted recount plan prompted howls of protest from Yee. Under current law, she could have requested and paid for recounts in areas favorable to her. But voters gain little from that sort of pay-to-play face-off. Had the recount continued into late summer, it might have interfered with preparations for the Nov. 4 general election.
This recount process reeks of unfairness. California, often a leader in reforms, is late to this issue.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia offer automatic recounts when the margin of victory is within a narrow percentage or set number of votes.
Everyone benefits when election results are transparently and accurately reviewed, and it’s only reasonable to have everyone, meaning taxpayers, foot the bill.
Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a San Mateo Democrat, wants the state to adopt an automatic state-funded recount in any statewide contest where the margin is one-tenth of 1 percent or less. Assembly Bill 2194 includes an urgency clause and could take effect in time for the November 4 election.
Other states offer plenty of options to consider. Arizona mandates a recount when the difference is the lesser of: 0.1 percent of votes cast for both candidates; or 200 votes for state offices, 50 votes for legislature. New Mexico demands a recount if a split of less than 0.5 percent occurs.
As a 2014 study on recount principles and best practices found: “Although recounts challenge us, they serve an important purpose in our democracy. Foremost, properly conducted recounts assure candidates and the public that in a close election, there has been a fair examination of the procedures and an accurate count of all legally cast votes.
“Recounts can also help us improve election systems. Any shortcomings in our voting equipment, ballot design, and ballot processing are revealed by the scrutiny of a recount.”
To bolster voter confidence, ensure accuracy in results and promote parity in access to recounts, there is no time to waste in passing recount reform.