Until former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez called it off Friday, we were in the midst of what was likely to become the biggest election recount in California history. If anything good comes of this political tempest, it is to remind us how badly we need to reform our recount laws. The race to be the next state controller was excruciatingly tight. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, is now set to face off against Board of Equalization member Betty Yee. Four hundred eighty-one votes separated Pérez and Yee, both Democrats. After the recount, which cost approximately $30,000, Perez picked up 10 votes. The way we do recounts in California is, well, a tad unruly. Welcome to the Golden State, where a candidate or other registered voter must request and pay for a recount. And they can choose which precincts will be subject to the recount. Why is this a problem?
First, the recount rules mean you get as much democracy as you can buy. Many of us know that money plays an outsized role in political campaigns. But, at least everyone still has the right to an equally weighted vote, or so we thought. This allowed many of us to sleep at night. Well, wake up folks. It turns out that money can play a troubling role in the actual counting of votes as well.
There are no recounts in California unless the candidate or another registered voter can at least initially foot the bill for the cost of the recount. This means that candidates without money at the end of a campaign, or without access to friends with money, will not be able to avail themselves of a recount. So how many votes will get another look? As many as someone can pay for. Yes, this troubles me.
The typical case in these atypical cases is for a candidate to call for a recount and use her own funds or campaign funds. This is potentially just an upfront cost that can be recouped. If the candidate prevails she gets her money back.