Weird Law Lets Pérez Pick the Votes He Can Pay to Recount in State Controller Race

Monday, July 14, 2014
Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez

California has never had a recount for a statewide election until now, and it may be about to find out why that was a good thing.

Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez demanded the recount after losing his bid to get in the November State Controller runoff by 481 votes out 4.46 million cast. He finished third in last month’s primary behind Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee.

But California law doesn’t provide for a total recount of ballots paid for by the state. Instead, a challenger can select those precincts he wants reviewed and pays according to the size of his selection. As speaker, Pérez amassed a hefty campaign chest, and could end up paying $3 million to have votes recounted in selected districts among 15 counties that favored him.

He can determine the order in which the precincts are canvassed, call off the recount at any time (including after taking the lead) and gets his money back if he wins.

Yee called the recount, which started last Friday, “cherry-picking.” If Pérez reclaims the lead after the recount, she can mount a recall challenge of her own. But observers say she does not have the money to do what Pérez is doing.

An analysis by the Sacramento Bee of the four largest counties being counted showed a disproportionate number of Latinos in residence and an even higher concentration in the districts he selected: “In Los Angeles County, Pérez chose to recount only 700 of the 4,870 precincts. Those areas, bunched mainly in the south and east of downtown, had a Latino population of 73.6 percent, compared to 47.7 percent countywide.”

Vote-counters are working against the clock, although there is no one specific deadline. But ballots will be mailed to people’s homes and overseas on September 5 and voter information guides are generally prepared more than a month before that.

Nobody is quoted in news stories extolling the virtues of a cherry-picked recount. Most everyone agrees that it devalues the most fundamental democratic right an individual holds, the vote, and wouldn’t be that hard to fix. Secretary of State Debra Bowen proposed a few years back that the state pay for targeted audits of votes in statewide recounts that could statistically establish if any vote counting mistakes were made. It went nowhere.

Democrats wonder if the infighting between two Democrats in a race that either Democrat would be favored to win is a good thing. And good-government advocates wonder if the voting process—already thin on issues and blubbering over with personal assaults and horse race inanities—could be mucked up any more than it already is.

We’re about to find out.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Controller's Race: Tough Fight Still Lies Ahead (by Josh Richman, San Jose Mercury News)

Pérez's Recount Push Divides Democrats (by Carla Marinucci, San Francisco Chronicle)

Secretary of State Candidates Call for Changes in Recount Law (by Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times)

Perez Picks Heavily Latino Precincts in Recount Fight (by Jim Miller, Sacramento Bee)

Controller Recount Highlights Election-Law Flaws (by Juliet Williams, Associated Press)

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