PD Editorial: Revisit recount procedures in California

It’s not Bush vs. Gore, and, with all due respect to the candidates, there’s no comparison between the presidency and serving as state controller.

But there’s no missing the parallels between the messy Florida recount in 2000 and the one that’s unfolding here in California, where Betty Yee and John A. Pérez finished just 481 votes apart in the official count following the June 3 primary.

It’s as if California lawmakers never contemplated a cliff-hanger election, or maybe they just slept through Florida’s fiasco.

There is no provision in state law for an automatic recount, even in a race as close as the controller primary, which was decided by less than 0.01 percent of 4 million votes cast.

Instead, any voter can request a recount of any race - so long as he or she is willing to pay the cost, which can be considerable, an estimated $3 million for a statewide recount.

And whoever writes the check gets to decide which counties and which precincts will be recounted.

In this case, Pérez, a former Assembly speaker, called for a review in hopes of leapfrogging past fellow Democrat Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization, to claim the second spot on the Nov. 4 ballot. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, finished first in the top-two primary.

Just as Al Gore tried to cherry-pick Florida precincts in the presidential election 14 years ago, Pérez requested recounts in the 15 counties, including Lake and Napa, where he scored best in the primary. He asked for a complete recount in some counties and recounts of selected precincts in others.

Pérez also established a sequence for the process, with counting starting last Friday in Kern and Imperial counties and others to follow in order when those are complete. It’s possible those counts won’t be finished before Nov. 4, the secretary of state’s office told the Sacramento Bee.

What would happen if they’re still counting come Election Day? Or early October, when mail ballots are distributed. Or late September, when ballots are mailed to service members posted overseas.

That’s uncharted territory, meaning the election may end up in court.

For now, however, Yee’s name will remain on the ballot.

Yee could request her own recount in counties and precincts where she did best, but she, too, would have to pay for it, and she can’t match Pérez’s resources.

A prolonged recount also could complicate her efforts to raise money for her general election campaign, potentially putting her at a disadvantage against Swearengin even if the recount doesn’t alter the outcome of the primary.

California’s recount system is a mix of money and politics, a combination that seldom benefits the general public. It puts underfunded candidates at a disadvantage and gives some votes more weight than others.

More than a dozen states require publicly funded recounts in contests as close as the Pérez-Yee race. California should establish a standard, perhaps a margin of less than 0.5 percent in a statewide election, for a mandatory recount at public expense. The integrity of our elections is worth the investment.

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