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New California recount rules intended to safeguard close elections

New California recount rules intended to safeguard close elections
California voters cast their ballots on Nov. 2, 2010, in Venice. New rules approved by Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday are intended to improve the state's recount system. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

California will overhaul how it handles vote recounts during statewide elections, replacing a system that critics say is unfair and fails to safeguard the outcome of tight races.

The new rules, approved by Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday when he signed legislation from Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco), would require the state to pick up the tab for recounts.

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Right now, any candidate or voter can request a review, but they have to pay for it themselves. In addition, they choose the specific counties whose ballots would be double-checked.

It's a system that was showcased last year, when Betty Yee was leading John Pérez by fewer than 500 votes in the primary contest for state controller. Pérez started paying for a recount, but eventually gave up after spending tens of thousands of dollars to gain only a handful of votes. Yee went on to win the general election.

"I don't think anybody realized the crazy process that existed until we had the controller race," Mullin said.

The new rules won't take effect until 2018, and they may never be used -- races would have to be razor-thin to trigger a recount, which could cost the state an estimated $3 million. But Mullin said it's better to play it safe.

"What price do you put on democracy, and ensuring the folks that got the most votes are actually elected?" he said.

Under the new law, a governor would need to call for a state-funded recount in close contests. An exception would be made for gubernatorial races; in those situations, the secretary of state could call for a recount.

Mullin said that provision was included to avoid creating a state mandate, and he's not concerned about vesting too much power in the governor's hands.

"The Legislature has passed this with clear intent that we are creating a publicly funded recount process," he said.

Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

For more political coverage, go to www.latimes.com/politics.

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