When John A. Pérez pored over voting results to determine which of California’s 22,353 precincts should be recounted in his tight battle for state controller, his campaign chose the ones in which he did well.
A Sacramento Bee analysis of the four largest counties to be recounted show some areas the campaign picked also have a disproportionately high population of Latinos and a disproportionately small population of whites and Asian Americans.
Whether the recount will help Pérez close a 481-vote gap out of 4 million cast and overtake his Asian American opponent, Betty Yee, will be decided in the ensuing weeks of tedious vote-counting by hand.
But the strategy highlights a system now coming under national criticism from vote-monitoring groups as inherently unfair.
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The recount, which begins Friday in Bakersfield and El Centro, stems from a state law that allows any voter who can afford it to bankroll a recount in targeted areas. In Pérez’s case, it permits him to target precincts in which he secured more votes for a variety of factors, including his ethnicity.
The Bee compared voting results from the June 3 election, census demographic data and the precincts Pérez submitted for recount in four of 15 counties where votes will be reviewed.
The results show that Pérez outpolled Yee by significant margins in the precincts he picked. Their Latino makeup equaled or exceeded that of the counties as a whole.
California has no automatic government-paid recount in close races, requiring the campaign to make choices, Pérez adviser Douglas Herman said.
“The areas that are selected are the areas where we performed well, because the law forces us to choose,” said Herman, who declined to go into further detail about the campaign’s criteria. “The fact that the margin is as tight as it is and there is no automatic recount is inherently unfair to the candidates and ultimately to the people of the state.”
The Yee campaign accuses the Pérez campaign of “cherry-picking” areas for recount. “There are big chunks of L.A. County that Betty Yee won that are not going to be included in a recount,” consultant Parke Skelton said, noting that “he’s not recounting in overwhelmingly black and Asian precincts.”
Election results show that voters are more likely to support candidates who share their own race or ethnicity. The political principle underlies the once-a-decade fight over drawing political district lines.
Skelton noted that in last month’s nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction, a little-known candidate, Lydia A. Gutiérrez, received a quarter of the vote, including almost half the vote in heavily Latino Imperial County.
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.
The 700 precincts have an Asian American population of about 6.5 percent, less than half of the 13.5 percent countywide proportion.
While Pérez topped Yee by less than 5 percentage points countywide in the voting, his margin averages five times as large in those 700 precincts, election records show.
“The law is just inherently unfair and flawed,” said Mark Halvorson, vice chairman of Minnesota-based Citizens for Election Integrity, who has observed recounts around the country. “The way to ensure people that the correct candidate won is to count every ballot. And that’s not going to happen here.”
Both Yee and Pérez seek to face last month’s top vote-getter, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in the November general election for the controller’s post. Besides serving as the state’s chief financial officer, the controller oversees the state’s cash flow, runs the state payroll and sits on dozens of boards and commissions, including the powerful CalPERS board.
Criticism of California’s law continued to mount this week, amid comparisons to the jumbled recount rules in Florida after the 2000 presidential election. Thursday, the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy criticized what it called California’s “bizarre, peculiar” recount system, one it said is “among the worst in the nation.”
Halvorson’s organization recently released a report on recount best practices. Among the recommendations: Taxpayers should pay for recounts in close statewide races. A statewide official should take a prominent public role in the process and communicate it with the public. And there should be maximum efforts to increase transparency, such as by webcasting and posting ballot images on the Web.
As of Thursday, the controller’s recount lacked any of those. Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for Debra Bowen, said Bowen’s office is helping the counties behind the scenes. The more public role suggested in the February report is not appropriate, she said.
“That may be a best practice, but California law does not give the secretary of state the power to impose upon county elections officials who are independently elected or appointed by their county board of supervisors,” Velayas said.
Pérez’s recount filing this week calls for hand recounts in all of Merced and Imperial counties, and partial hand counts in 13 other counties, most of them in Southern and Central California. The remainder of the ballots would be counted by machine, which is cheaper.
In Kern County, the Pérez recount request covers 389 of the county’s 444 June 3 precincts. Pérez topped Yee by an average of 10.5 percentage points in those areas, compared to a countywide margin of 9.7 percentage points. The precincts’ demographics roughly match the entire county.
The same is true for recount precincts in San Bernadino, third in line, where Pérez requested hand recounts in 495 of the county’s 1,662 precincts. He outpolled Yee there by an average of 10.2 percentage points, compared to a countywide margin of 8 points .
In Orange County, the 516 precincts selected for hand recount are significantly more Latino in makeup than the county as a whole. The precincts are concentrated around Santa Ana and Anaheim, where Pérez topped Yee by almost 10 percentage points, compared to 1.4 percentage points in the county.
Groups representing racial and ethnic minorities in California played an active role in the 2011 remap of the state’s political boundaries. Representatives of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles declined to comment on The Bee’s findings about the demographic makeup of the recount precincts.
California’s recount system evokes what happened in Florida following the 2000 election. Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore sought recounts in four heavily Democratic counties because the state lacked a process for seeking a statewide recount. Florida judges later ordered a statewide recount, only to have it halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“In the court of public opinion and ultimately in the U.S. Supreme Court, you can make the argument that (Gore’s) strategy backfired,” said Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University and the director of its election program.
Paying close attention to the controller’s recount is San Francisco surgeon John Maa, who two years ago became the first person to seek a statewide recount in a California election. Maa spent $250,000 on a hand recount in Los Angeles and several other counties following the narrow loss of a tobacco-tax measure, Prop. 29.
“You’d have to be Michael Bloomberg” to do a statewide recount, Maa said. “I know there’s criticism of John Pérez. But he’s doing exactly what the law requires.”