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electionlineWeekly — July 17, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

County elections official in ‘uncharted territory’ with Calif. recount
While elections workers count others debate changes to recount law

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For elections officials in California, during a busy election year, July is often the time for well-deserved vacations, elections office housekeeping and a time for general administrative work and slow ramp-up to November.

But this year, elections officials in 15 of the state’s 58 counties are either busy hand-counting ballots or preparing for their turn to count.

On July 6, Democrat John Perez, who came in third behind Democrat Betty Yee in the race for state controller sent a letter to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen requesting a recount.

Under California law, any voter may request a recount if they pay for it. Perez, who lost to Yee by 481 votes, requested that 15 counties manually recount dozens, if not all of their precincts.

“Never in California history has the vote difference between two candidates for statewide office been so narrow, 481 votes or 1/100th of one percent, out of more than four million ballots cast,” Perez said in a statement at the time of his request. “It is therefore of the utmost importance that an additional, carefully conducted review of the ballots be undertaken to ensure that every vote is counted, as intended.”

The recount will focus on precinct-cast ballots from the June 3 primary, but Perez is also seeking to review all “voted ballots that were not included in the official canvas, including unopened rejected vote-by-mail (“VBM”) ballots and provisional ballots…”

Perez has requested that the counties count in the order he outlined in his letter beginning with Kern and Imperial counties.

For elections officials, particularly in Kern and Imperial, it has meant calling staff back from vacations, bringing on additional staff and shifting focus.

“Since we were the first county on the recount list, we immediately began the planning process to identify what resources we would need so that we could begin the recount as soon as possible,” said Mary Bedard, Kern County auditor-controller-county clerk.

Bedard said her office consulted with the secretary of state’s off and county counsel prior to beginning the recount. The office also put together four recount boards and a staging crew to pull the ballots by precinct as required. In addition, reports, seals, challenge envelopes and other supplies were created to support the process.

While all of the counties involved in the recount have begun the initial preparation process, some further down the list are taking a wait-and-see approach to bringing on additional staff and resources.

“At this juncture, we have not hired any additional staff. Once the process commences, we will bring in experienced temporary staff to train and prepare for the recount,” said Mark Church, assessor-county clerk-recorder & chief elections officer for San Mateo County, number five on Perez’s list. “The process for our county will commence once the other four counties identified before us have completed their recounts.”

Even though, according to the secretary of state’s office, the June 3 primary was the lowest voter turnout for any statewide election in California — 25.2 percent — counties are faced with a task, most have never seen before on this scale.

“My [initial] response [to the recount] was a mixture of curiosity and apprehension at being involved in the first modern era, statewide recount in California,” said John Tuteur, Napa County registrar of voters, number 12 on the recount list. “Given the excellent guidance provided by the secretary of state team and the mutual cooperation between the 15 county election officials participating in the recount process, my apprehension is lessening and the curiosity growing.”

Dollars and cents
The California recount law requires the requestor to pay for all costs associated with the recount. What those costs may be varies from county to county.

“There is no standardization to how a county figures out its cost for the recount,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation (CalVote). “That’s a level of unevenness that makes me nervous.”

For instance in Riverside County, number nine on the recount list, Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer said her office will charge for all costs associated with the recount and on day one of the recount — whenever their day one comes — the county will charge for all the preparation work in addition to the recount boards and supervisor required to complete day one. They will then request a deposit at the beginning of each subsequent day.

Riverside already has 20 temporary staff pulling ballots from the requested precincts and another 20 on standby fro when the recount begins.

In Tulare County, Rita Woodward, auditor-controller, treasurer-tax collector, registrar of voters, said the county will not do any actual work on the recount until the requestor pays their estimated costs.

“I want our estimated cost up front, to get all our costs incurred,” Woodward said. “Counsel is checking to see if we must accept a daily payment. We have found that historically a loser does not want to pay election bills, so I do not want to wait until they are done - what if there is no change is the results?  And once we are done with the manual count, there is still the cost of putting everything back in storage.”

Some elections officials have said that while the requestor certainly will be footing the bill for the bulk of the recount, there are some costs that the county will have to absorb.

“We anticipate absorbing a small amount of administrative time and resources before, during, and after the recount,” Church of San Mateo County said. “These costs in turn will not be reimbursed by the requestor.  We expect to have the majority of our expenses to be paid by the requestor.”  

Changes to come?
Needless to say, calls to review/change California’s recount laws began before even the first ballot was counted — again.

“This whole episode has raised a lot of questions about the need for it to be reformed,” Alexander with CalVote said.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) plans to introduce legislation when the General Assembly is back in session next month to overhaul the state’s recount laws.

Cathy Darling Allen, Shasta County clerk/registrar of voters and outgoing president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials (CACEO) said although her county is not involved in the recount she is monitoring the situation—a process she referred to as “not ready for prime time” and is especially keeping track of the discussions about legislative changes.

“CACEO had a standing Elections Legislative Committee with existing relationships with both the Assembly and state Senate election committees staffers, and of course with many legislators as well,” Allen said. “We will be able to evaluate proposed legislation with this very recent recount experience in mind.”

Alexander noted that California already has strong election verification laws, but she is hoping to see changes to the process. Codifying more of the procedures so that all the counties are on the same page and doing things the same way.

Darling agreed and noted that while counties and the secretary of state’s office talk to each other on a semi regular basis to help ensure uniformity, there could still be room for improvement legislatively.

“There's been good communication so far - but nothing we can do will change the strangeness and unwieldiness of this process,” Darling said.