Recount in California controller’s race raises questions, anxiety for registrars

Election officials across California on Monday began preparing for a historically large hand recount in the state controller’s race amid uncertainty about how to coordinate an effort involving thousands of precincts in 15 counties.

During a normally slow time on the election calendar, counties were calling back employees from vacation, getting in touch with potential members of recount boards and studying the finer points of the state’s recount laws. The activity began after former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez filed papers Sunday seeking manual recounts in 15 counties where he ran well against Board of Equalization member and fellow Democrat Betty Yee.

“There are more questions right now than answers,” said Michael Scarpello, registrar of voters in San Bernardino County, where the Pérez campaign seeks recounts in 495 of the county’s nearly 1,700 precincts.

Pérez is seeking the right to face the top vote-getter, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in the November general election for the controller’s post. Often viewed as the state’s chief financial officer, the controller runs the state’s payroll and manages its cash flow, among other fiscal management duties.

In the six-candidate controller’s field, Yee leads Pérez by 481 votes out of more than 4 million cast, a margin of one-hundredth of a percent. Only four other statewide votes in the U.S. since 2000 have had as close a margin, with subsequent recounts reversing the Election Day outcome in two of them.

Unlike some states, California law does not require automatic recounts in close races. A person requesting a recount has to front the money to pay for it before each day of counting. Pérez wants the recount to begin simultaneously in Kern and Imperial counties, and then proceed sequentially in 13 additional counties.

In Kern County, workers on vacation have been summoned back to the office to begin preparations. “We’ve been working on this all morning,” said Mary Bedard, the county’s registrar of voters, who said the recount could begin by week’s end. In Imperial County, officials have called back ballot warehouse workers, registrar of voters Debbie Porter said.

Late Monday afternoon, Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office hosted a conference call with anxious county officials. Yet it remained unclear Monday to what extent Bowen’s office will coordinate the recount process among the counties. The involved counties, for instance, use six types of vote-by-mail systems and seven types of polling-place voting machines.

“I think the Secretary of State’s Office has to play a role in this. They are vital to this process,” said Mark Church, registrar of voters in San Mateo County, No. 5 on the recount list. Bowen’s office was unavailable for comment after the call.

Other county officials voiced concerns that, notwithstanding the payment-in-advance rules for recounts, their counties could be left holding the bag if the recount ends before it gets to them.

Rebecca Spencer, acting registrar in Riverside County, which is No. 9 on the recount list, said the process of preparing for the recount involves pulling together thousands of precinct records and discarded provisional and vote-by-mail ballots. “It’s about five days of prep work. That’s my major concern – if we start that prep work now, and there are eight counties ahead of us, and they call it off, do we get reimbursed?” Spencer said.

It remained unclear Monday how long the county-by-county recount could last and how much it could hamper preparations for the Nov. 4 ballot.

Charles Bell, an attorney who is not involved in the recount, said it makes sense for Pérez to seek additional votes in places where he did particularly well. Yet there’s no guarantee that he will pick up enough votes to cancel out Yee’s lead, particularly since some missed votes will inevitably be for one of the other candidates on the June 3 ballot.

The Yee campaign said it plans to closely monitor the recounts. If the recount puts Pérez in front, Yee’s campaign has 24 hours to request a recount in counties of its choosing.

Yee consultant Parke Skelton also left open the possibility of a court challenge, citing the legal fight after the 2000 presidential election when Vice President Al Gore sought recounts just in Democratic-leaning counties in Florida.

“We’re just assessing what our options are,” Skelton said.

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