California’s No-Win ‘Money Talks’ Recount


California is in the midst of a sort-of statewide election recount. Will it be like Florida in 2000? Hardly. This isn’t a heated national contest to see which party occupies the Oval Office. It’s about the unsexy state controller’s office and which Democrat — former Assembly Speaker John Perez or Board of Equalization member Betty Yee — will run in November against top vote-getter Ashley Swearengin, Fresno’s Republican mayor. Yee garnered 481 more votes than Perez, so Perez wants a recount.

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But just as the Florida recount did little for the Sunshine State’s image, a recount under California election rules does not make the Golden State appear golden. Both Yee and Perez won 21.7 percent of the vote. Many states have automatic recounts when elections are within a margin of error, say 1 percent. California has no such mechanism. Instead, state law allows any registered voter to ask for a recount. The catch: That person has to pay for the recount. The other catch: That individual can pick which counties — and which precincts within those counties — are recounted.

No fool, Perez selected precincts in 15 counties where he outperformed Yee. Strategist Douglas Herman told me, “I’d love for there to be an automatic recount mechanism” statewide. But because the Perez campaign has to pay for a recount and cannot afford the estimated $3 million for a statewide tally, Perez did what he had to do.

Lucky for Perez, state law also allows him to stipulate which precincts and counties are counted first. If he gains enough votes to beat Yee early on, then he can halt the recount. If he wins a recount, he gets his money back.

The rules are so ridiculous that, quoth GOP secretary of state hopeful Pete Peterson, they “could only have been written by politicians looking to protect themselves.”

What if the cash-strapped Yee wants her own recount to catch up? “She has every right to do it,” answered Herman. Perez just wants to “make sure that every vote is counted as cast.”

Except, of course, Perez isn’t paying to count every vote. Just like Al Gore, who wanted to decide Florida by conducting a selective recount of four Democratic counties only, Perez is pushing for a friendly recount. Now, 14 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore, some Dems are crying foul at the very notion of a selective recount.

Election attorney Chuck Bell thinks the Perez approach is tactically smart. “Perez,” he explained, “is starting with the lowest-cost options at the front end, picking districts that wouldn’t cost as much to do some preliminary evaluation.” But there’s no escaping that this is a “money talks” system. As former speaker, Perez can afford to wage a 15-county probe. If Perez wins because he could afford a candidate’s choice recount but Yee could not, he wins ugly.

Yee consultant Parke Skelton believes that there’s an equal-protection argument to be made in court if Perez prevails. I wouldn’t be surprised if a California or federal judge ruled that a selective recount shortchanges voters in the state’s other 43 counties.

“If Perez wins this only by cherry-picking precincts,” GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum told me, “I think he will be tainted. I think it will be very good for Swearengin.” If Perez wins on a technicality, then it will weaken him.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].: 

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