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Editorial: California’s recount system needs a reboot

There are historical and financial reasons for it, but California’s system for election recounts is confusing and unfair. Now, as the largest recount in modern state history plays out, it’s prime time to ask: Is this what we really want?

Yes, the candidates have the most to win or lose. Yet, all voters have a stake in full, fast and accurate election results.

Lawmakers should take a serious look at reforms. One would be automatic recounts in the rare cases when an election is extremely close. Another would be limiting when candidates can seek recounts – for instance a maximum vote margin.

Now, candidates only need to put up a deposit. They get to cherry pick which counties – or precincts within a county – recount ballots first. They get their money back for each day’s work if the final result changes. That setup obviously favors candidates with bigger campaign war chests.

If the winner changes, then the opposing candidate can pay for recounts in their selected areas. Theoretically, this could go back and forth until every ballot in the state is recounted – as long as candidates can afford the upfront payments and there’s enough time before the next election.

This process is starting to unfold in the top-two primary for state controller. After the canvass of June 3 results, former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez trails Board of Equalization member Betty Yee by 481 votes out of more than 4 million cast for second place. Sunday, he filed papers for hand recounts in 15 counties where he defeated her, starting in Kern and Imperial. His list also includes Fresno, Merced and Stanislaus.

If the result is flipped, Yee would almost certainly extend the recount to her strongest counties if she can come up with the upfront cash. The winning Democrat will go up against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, on Nov. 4.

Even without recounts, there are checks of election results. County election offices are required to randomly count 1 percent of ballots by hand to check for any discrepancies with the electronic vote tally.

That verification process was strengthened by Assembly Bill 2023, a 2010 measure that tested more extensive statistical sampling, in part to reduce the need for recounts by giving losing candidates more proof that the result was accurate. But that law – and the $230,000 federal grant that financed the project in 10 counties – expired at the end of last year. Secretary of State Debra Bowen sponsored the bill, and her office sings its praises but says it couldn’t find a legislator to carry a proposal to continue it.

The state doesn’t want to pay for recounts (a statewide one would cost an estimated $3 million), and county elections officials don’t want to be stuck with the tab, either. As it is, the counties are claiming nearly $100 million in reimbursements from the state for election-related mandates.

While most larger states are like California, where candidates and citizens can initiate recounts under some circumstances, 22 other states require automatic recounts if the vote difference is within a specified margin. In most of these states, the public pays.

Democracy comes at a price. We can’t always get it on the cheap.