Capitol Alert

Pérez calls off recount in California controller’s race

Assemblyman John A. Pérez abandoned his recount in the California controller’s race Friday, ending an effort to overcome a narrow third-place finish after picking up only a handful of votes amid increasing impatience from Democratic activists and others worried about its impact on the fall election.

Perez called off the recount a week after it started. Election workers had finished hand recounts in less than a tenth of the more than 4,100 precincts in 15 counties listed in Pérez’s July 6 filing for what would have been the largest recount in state history.

“While I strongly believe that completing this process would result in me advancing to the General Election, it is clear that there are significant deficiencies in the process itself which make continuing the recount problematic,” Pérez said in a statement Friday. “Even in the effort so far, we have found uncounted ballots, but there is simply not enough time to see this process through to the end, given the fact that counties must begin printing ballots in the next few weeks in order to ensure that overseas and military voters can receive their ballots in a timely manner.”

Pérez, D-Los Angeles, finished 481 votes behind Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, also a Democrat, for second place and a slot in the Nov. 4 general election against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican who finished first in the balloting.

The margin between Pérez and Yee, one-hundredth of 1 percent of more than 4 million votes cast, was among the closest finishes of any statewide election in the United States since 2000. The recount highlighted shortcomings in California’s recount laws, which allow candidates to demand recounts in precincts of their choosing, and then allow others to counter any gains with recounts of their own. The Yee campaign accused Perez of “cherry-picking” favorable precincts and readied litigation in case Pérez took the lead.

Although Pérez is responsible for paying the counties’ costs of the recount, Yee campaign officials said the exercise cost Yee’s underfunded primary campaign between $70,000 and $80,000 in legal fees, observers and other costs. The uncertainty about which Democrat would face Swearengin also hindered Yee’s ability to raise money for the general election.

On Friday, both sides tried to put months of hard feelings behind them. Pérez called Yee and pledged his full support. And in a statement, Yee thanked Pérez for “doing the right thing in recognizing that the recount was unlikely to reverse the outcome of the election.”

“Now we can move forward, united for the November general election. John Pérez is an outstanding leader who has played an important role in helping to put California back on sound fiscal footing,” she said. “I deeply appreciate his support.”

Democrats won every statewide race in 2010, and Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to win re-election this year. Yet controller’s races in non-incumbent years historically have been competitive, and whoever occupies the post also sits on dozens of boards and commissions that are deeply important to business, unions and other influential interests.

John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said he was “very happy it’s over.”

“I think the race was close enough that, you know, John took a shot, which I think most people would have,” Burton said. “When he just saw clearly it wasn’t there, he wasn’t going to prolong it out of some ego thing, but just being the good Democrat he is, (stopped) the recount.”

Republicans had viewed the recount as diverting Democrats’ energy and potentially sowing party divisions, while giving Swearengin the opportunity to make up for lost time after she entered the race shortly before the filing deadline. “While (the Democrats) were in neutral, we got a chance to really put things together and get going,” Swearengin consultant Tim Clark said.

In a statement, Swearengin said, “I’m looking forward to a healthy debate about our differing visions for state government and how best to use the controller’s office to support economic growth and fiscal stability.”

Yee consultant Parke Skelton said Friday’s decision leaves plenty of time for Yee to prepare to take on Swearengin. “ We are a little behind where we should be, but I think we’ll catch up quickly and be fine,” he said.

The margins in the controller’s race were paper-thin after polls closed June 3. Early on, it looked as if Swearengin might face a fellow Republican in the fall, David Evans of California City. Then Pérez pulled into second place, posting on his campaign’s Facebook page June 4, “We are headed to the runoff with Republican Ashley Swearengin.”

But as county election officials laboriously processed provisional, damaged and late-arriving mail ballots, particularly in Northern California, Yee closed the gap with Pérez and eventually clinched second place on the last day of the canvass, July 1.

On July 6, Pérez filed papers seeking the recount covering precincts where he had outpolled Yee. In a statement, Pérez said the close finish means it is 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 began July 11 in Bakersfield and El Centro. But after picking up only a handful of votes in Kern and Imperial counties, Pérez had requested a recount to begin Monday in San Bernardino County, No. 3 on his list.

Meanwhile, some Democratic activists publicly called on Pérez to stand down. On the day the recount started, the California Democratic Party gave $50,000 to Yee and soon after endorsed her. The party’s controller sent out a fundraising appeal on her behalf Thursday.

Burton said Pérez’s decision was based on the tiny gains the recount was garnering, not on pressure from other Democrats. He said the recount was so brief it would not hurt Pérez’s future prospects in the party.

“As soon as he saw that it wasn’t there, he immediately stopped,” Burton said. “I know people who would drag it on until hell won’t have it.”

Pérez’s filing posed the biggest test yet for California’s recount law, which quickly became a focus of derision by both the Yee and Pérez campaigns, as well as voting experts around the country. The law, unlike those in other states, allows any voter to pay for recounts in particular places and then allows another voter to pay for a recount in other areas, and so on. The law does not require statewide oversight, allowing counties to set their own rates.

Earlier this week, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, said he would introduce legislation to overhaul the recount process, possibly by creating a process of taxpayer-funded recounts in close races.

“This should serve as a wake-up call on the need to re-examine how our laws and processes respond to close contests and narrow margins in elections,” Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk Dean Logan said. The county was No. 8 on the list, with 700 precincts identified for hand recounts.

The recount, if it had continued, threatened preparation by Logan and other election officials for the Nov. 4 ballot. Voter information guides go on display next week, and overseas and military ballots begin going out in early September.

“I just breathed a huge sigh of relief,” said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation in Sacramento. County registrars, she said, have “been very worried about whether they would be able to get the ballots printed in time and meet all the requirements. … It’s been the cliffhanger of the summer.”

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