Election officials across California on Monday began preparing for a historically large hand recount in the state controller’s race amid uncertainty about how to coordinate an effort involving thousands of precincts in 15 counties.
During a normally slow time on the election calendar, counties were calling back employees from vacation, getting in touch with potential members of recount boards and studying the finer points of the state’s recount laws. The activity began after former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez filed papers Sunday seeking manual recounts in 15 counties where he ran well against Board of Equalization member and fellow Democrat Betty Yee.
“There are more questions right now than answers,” said Michael Scarpello, registrar of voters in San Bernardino County, where the Pérez campaign seeks recounts in 495 of the county’s nearly 1,700 precincts.
Pérez is seeking the right to face the top vote-getter, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen, in the November general election for the controller’s post. Often viewed as the state’s chief financial officer, the Controller’s Office runs the state’s payroll and manages its cash flow, among other fiscal management duties.
In the six-candidate controller’s field, Yee leads Pérez by 481 votes out of more than 4 million cast, a margin of one-hundredth of a percent. Only four other statewide votes in the U.S. since 2000 have had as close a margin, with subsequent recounts reversing the Election Day outcome in two of them.
Unlike some states, California law does not require automatic recounts in close races. A person requesting a recount has to front the money to pay for it before each day of counting.
Lee Lundrigan, registrar of voters for Stanislaus County, said the secretary of state notified her office Sunday evening that Pérez had requested a partial recount. Pérez asked that a manual recount include 221 of the 357 precincts in Stanislaus. Pérez placed third in the balloting in this county, capturing 10,654 votes or 20 percent; Yee was fourth with 7,839 votes or 15 percent.
Monday, Lundrigan took part in a teleconference with Secretary of State Debra Bowen and election officials from the other counties. Lundrigan said she learned that Kern County may be ready to start its count later this week. Pérez asked that the recount begin in Kern and Imperial counties and be completed there before proceeding to the next county on the list.
Stanislaus is 10th on the list, below Riverside, so it could be weeks or months before it’s done here.
In Kern County, workers on vacation have been summoned back to the office to begin preparations. “We’ve been working on this all morning,” said Mary Bedard, the county’s registrar of voters, who said the recount could begin by week’s end. In Imperial County, officials have called back ballot warehouse workers, Registrar of Voters Debbie Porter said.
Although the secretary of state hosted the conference call with anxious county officials, it remained unclear Monday to what extent Bowen’s office will coordinate the recount process among the counties.
The involved counties, for instance, use six types of vote-by-mail systems and seven types of polling-place voting machines.
“I think the Secretary of State’s Office has to play a role in this. They are vital to this process,” said Mark Church, registrar of voters in San Mateo County, No. 5 on the recount list. Bowen’s office was unavailable for comment after the call.
Other county officials voiced concerns that, notwithstanding the payment-in-advance rules for recounts, their counties could be left holding the bag if the recount is called off before it gets to them.
Rebecca Spencer, acting registrar in Riverside County, which is No. 9 on the recount list, said the process of preparing for the recount involves pulling together thousands of precinct records and discarded provisional and vote-by-mail ballots. “It’s about five days of prep work. That’s my major concern – if we start that prep work now, and there are eight counties ahead of us, and they call it off, do we get reimbursed?” Spencer said.
It remained unclear Monday how long the county-by-county recount could last and how much it could hamper preparations for the Nov. 4 ballot.
Attorney Charles Bell, who is not involved in the recount, said it makes sense for Pérez to seek additional votes in places where he did particularly well. Yet there’s no guarantee he will pick up enough votes to cancel out Yee’s lead, particularly because some missed votes will inevitably be for one of the other four controller candidates on the June 3 ballot.
The Yee campaign said it plans to closely monitor the recounts. If the recount puts Pérez in front, Yee’s campaign has 24 hours to request a recount in counties of its choosing.
Yee consultant Parke Skelton also left open the possibility of a court challenge, citing the legal fight after the 2000 presidential election when Vice President Al Gore sought recounts in just Democratic-leaning counties in Florida.
“We’re just assessing what our options are,” Skelton said.
Modesto Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.