Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Pérez gives up on vote recount, but system’s flaws are shown

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

One can categorize politicians by many indices – honesty, intelligence, effectiveness and ideology, for instance.

One of the more reliable, however, is what one might call self-identification. Does the politician, regardless of other qualities, see politics primarily as a civic duty – something separate from family and/or professional career – or as the essence of his or her persona?

The former can lose an election – former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind – and simply get on with the rest of their lives.

But to the latter, losing an election is a traumatic, life-altering event, so they will go to extraordinary lengths to remain in office.

That probably explains why John A. Pérez insisted on a recount after failing to gain a spot on the November ballot for state controller by a scant 481 votes.

That was the margin separating him from fellow Democrat Betty Yee for second place in the June primary and the right to face Republican Ashley Swearengin, who finished first, on Nov. 4.

Pérez, a former speaker of the Assembly, seemed to take the race for granted and was shocked when he lost by such a tiny margin.

Thereupon, Pérez started spending for a recount in counties and precincts that looked the most promising for gains, only to be disappointed when the initial tallies gave him just a few more votes. Last Friday, under increasing pressure from other Democrats, he pulled the plug.

So Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization, will be facing Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, and that matchup is probably bad news for Republican hopes of capturing a statewide office. Yee isn’t a sure thing, but Swearengin would doubtless have had a better shot against Pérez.

The other takeaway from this slightly bizarre series of events is that California’s recount process stinks, dependent on a losing candidate or a voter putting up substantial amounts of money to count specified precincts.

Had Pérez actually closed the gap, Yee could have responded with a recount of her own and the process could have become a logistical nightmare by conflicting with deadlines for printing voter handbooks and ballots.

We dodged that bullet this year only because Pérez decided that continuing his recount was counterproductive. But it should be a wakeup call about the fundamental conflicts between our laws governing primary election recounts and the election calendar.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution – complete and mandatory recounts at public expense when an outcome is too close to call. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia do that, although their margin thresholds vary a bit.

With a reasonable threshold, recounts would be very rare and their cost, about $3 million for a statewide tally, is an infinitesimal amount for protecting the integrity of the ballot.

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