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Recount kicks off in Newport council race decided by 36 votes

Orange County elections workers started manually recounting ballots Wednesday in the nearly dead-even Newport Beach City Council race between incumbent Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and challenger Tim Stoaks.

Duffield — who won the initial count by 36 votes out of nearly 37,000 cast in the Nov. 6 election for his District 3 seat — was among about a dozen observers quietly watching the brisk yet meticulous work inside a conference room at the county registrar of voters headquarters in Santa Ana.

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Workers seated in groups of five around six folding tables examined ballots and tallied the picks by hand. One worker flipped through ballots and called out which candidate got the vote on each one. Two purposely redundant workers drew hash marks in boxes on identical ledger-like paper sheets with rows for Duffield, Stoaks and undervotes, or ballots on which neither candidate received a vote.

The count-keepers regularly switched between red and green pencils to leave a visual trail of synchrony, and every five notches they called out “check,” with the idea that two voices would make the announcement every time.

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A fourth worker watched the person calling out the names; a fifth watched the whole group. And supporters of Duffield and Stoaks filtered throughout the room, ready to make challenges as they watched ballots turn over. In those instances, another worker set aside the ballots for elections officials and lawyers for both candidates to scrutinize one by one.

The county posts frequent recount updates online. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, 1,388 ballots had been reviewed, with a 100% match between the machine and hand counts, the registrar’s office reported.

Duffield, who took the oath of office the night before for his second term, leaned against a table Wednesday piled with cardboard boxes containing ballots organized by precinct.

Lawyer Phil Greer, who represents Stoaks, sat in a chair a couple of feet away.

Both sides said watching the process instilled confidence in the county.

“We’re very impressed over how efficient this is,” Duffield said.

Greer said it was too early to tell how the outcome might swing but added that he trusts the process.

“Reviewing these shows what a good operation [Registrar] Neal Kelley runs,” Greer said.

Recounting relies on human eyes and basic office supplies. After spending more than an hour dividing the ballots into bundles of 25, the workers started on their main objective — calling out names over a soft din of papers rubbing together, rubber bands snapping and a pencil sharpener growling.

The counting teams filled the room with voices that sounded like staccato singing: “Duffield, undervote, Duffield, Duffield, Duffield, Stoaks, Stoaks, Stoaks, Duffield, Duffield, Stoaks, Stoaks, Duffield, Duffield.” Another group used first names: “Marshall, Tim, Marshall, Tim, Marshall, Tim, Tim, Marshall, Tim, Tim, Marshall, Marshall, Tim, undervote.”

Stoaks did not call for the recount, but several of his supporters did.

California does not automatically do recounts in close races, but candidates or voters can request one if they bear the cost. After about three days of crowdfunding, the recount proponents had $10,000 in hand and about $15,000 in pledges, which they estimated would be enough to double-check all the ballots. If the recount changes the outcome, the county will refund the payments.

The county certified the initial results on Nov. 30 with 18,458 votes for Duffield and 18,422 for Stoaks.

It’s unclear how long the recount will take. Its backers say they are willing to pull the plug if the scales don’t start to tip much in Stoaks’ favor.

“We all just need to trust the process and be patient with it,” Stoaks said.

The recount resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday and is open to the public. The registrar’s office is at 1300 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana.

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