Column: Even with some very close races left to decide in California, a recount of ballots is rare

Soloi Taafua, an election aid with the Orange County Registrar of Voters sorts through mail-in ballo
Soloi Taafua, an election aide with the Orange County Registrar of Voters, sorts through mail-in ballots on Nov. 7 in Santa Ana. Many races in Orange County remain too close to call.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)
Sacramento Bureau Chief

No state in the nation had as many voters show up for last week’s midterm elections as California. Preliminary data show that about 12 million ballots were cast — some coming in races that produced razor-thin outcomes, the kind that fuel talk about a recount in other states.

But not in California.

Here, a formal do-over of the tallying is exceedingly rare. A review of election records and news archives finds perhaps only about a half-dozen formal recount efforts in legislative, congressional or statewide contests since 1980.

In contrast, other states have rules that automatically trigger a recount in close races. Florida, in the national spotlight after new accusations of election mismanagement have left two statewide contests in doubt, requires a recount if two candidates’ votes are within a half percentage point of each other. Eighteen other states mandate a new count in similar or slightly tighter elections.


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Those rules, though, seem quite generous when compared to some of California’s closest contests. In 2014, the final results in the primary for state controller showed a difference of only 481 votes out of 1,755,909 cast, giving Democrat Betty Yee a historically close win over former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, also a Democrat. In 2002, the general election for the same office ended with former Controller Steve Westly eking out a .25% victory.

Pérez wanted a recount, and he got one — because his campaign paid for it. California law allows not only candidates but “any voter” who’s willing to put up the money to file “a written request for a recount of the votes cast” in a local or a statewide race. Note what’s missing: a requirement that the vote tally be close. The law is silent on that issue.

The decision of which votes to review is solely up to the person who asks for the recount. Pérez chose communities where he thought his candidacy had been strongest. But facing mounting pressure from his fellow Democrats, he called off the process after less than a week.


In 2012, a wealthy supporter of a tobacco tax ballot measure, Proposition 29, paid for a partial recount of precincts in Los Angeles County but soon abandoned the effort; the initiative officially lost by 24,076 votes statewide. Cost was a factor in these and other aborted efforts, and estimates for a full statewide recount have often been pegged at $2 million or higher, though the money is refunded by the state if the outcome of the race changes.

What standard is used? “On recount, ballots may be challenged for incompleteness, ambiguity, or other defects,” state election law says. The elections officer in charge will make a judgment “as he or she believes proper” about any given ballot.

Where California really stands out, though, is the subjective process by which votes are reviewed. The recount requester can go precinct by precinct in search of votes and the opposing side can then ask for a review of votes cast elsewhere. That’s worrisome enough in a local race for the Legislature or a regional race for Congress, and even worse in a statewide race on major topics such as taxation and criminal justice — or in a race for governor.

The Yee-Pérez contest led to the enactment of a state law that allows the governor to order a state-funded recount in similarly close races that affect all Californians. Even so, there remains no mandate for a recount in a close race. The week ended with several legislative and congressional races separated by very small margins. The candidates who come out on the short end of the final count won’t be able to rely on automatic review: They’ll have to make a decision based on their gut and their bank account.

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