Capitol Alert

Legislation would require automatic recounts in very close statewide finishes

California taxpayers would pick up the tab for recounts in close statewide elections under soon-to-be-amended legislation that follows criticism of existing state rules during last month’s recount in the controller’s race.

Assembly Bill 2194 by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, would require the state to cover the cost of recounts in any statewide contest where the margin is one-tenth of 1 percent or less. Under current law, any voter can request a recount in particular areas as long as they pay for it. If the recount changes the outcome, another voter can request a recount in other places.

Election experts and others assailed California’s rules as unfair after Assemblyman John A. Pérez requested manual recounts in all or parts of 15 counties following his third-place finish, by 481 votes, in the state controller primary June 3. The second-place finisher, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, accused Pérez of “cherry-picking” favorable areas for votes while Pérez supporters said the law left him no choice.

Pérez abandoned the recount July 18, less than two weeks after asking for it.

“Fourteen years after Bush v. Gore, and the Florida fiasco, California still has an antiquated system for recounts and it needs reform,” Mullin said in a statement Thursday. The measure includes an urgency clause and if passed, it would take effect in time for the November election. “We want to move this bill now while the controller’s recount and the issues it raised are fresh in everyone’s minds,” Mullin said.

Other states with automatic recount procedures have thresholds greater than the one-tenth of 1 percent margin proposed in the Mullin legislation. The only statewide election in the past 20 years with a finish as close as the controller’s contest, where the margin between Yee and Pérez amounted to just one-hundredth of 1 percent out of more than four million ballots cast.

Counties set their own recount fees. Mullin’s office pegged the cost of a statewide recount at an estimated $1.9 million. The measure would not apply to recounts in congressional, legislative and other contests.

The bill also would allow counties to conduct statistical sampling of election results to identify any problems, instead of the 1 percent manual tally that’s been in place for 40 years. Experts say the sampling is less expensive and more useful than the manual tally.

A major concern during the controller’s recount was that, if the recount continued into late summer, it would have interfered with preparations for the Nov. 4 election. As currently written, Mullin’s bill does not set a deadline by which a recount has to be finished.

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