Elections officials in Imperial and Kern counties started counting ballots Friday in the contested race for state controller as part of a time-consuming process that could drag on for weeks and involve 15 counties, despite looming deadlines for the November general election.
Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, sought the recount — the first in a statewide office election in modern history — after he finished third in the June 3 primary. Pérez was 481 votes behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, finished first.
"So far it's been very non-controversial. It's very clear who the voters wanted to vote for, and the tallies are identical so far every time," said Yee campaign consultant Parke Skelton, who was overseeing the vote-counting in Imperial County.
"It's going to be a long process," he said.
The controller serves as the state's chief fiscal officer and is responsible for managing incoming and outgoing payments.
The estimated bill is $4,019 per day in Kern County and $1,640 per day in Imperial, an amount that must be paid in advance of each day's work. Each of those counties could be counting ballots for two weeks or longer.
The recount doesn't have to be finished by a specific date, but county clerks are racing against other deadlines ahead of the Nov. 4 general election.
Voter information guides are set to go on public display starting July 22.
When Pérez pored over voting results to determine which of California's 22,353 precincts should be recounted in his tight battle for state controller, his campaign chose the ones in which he did well.
A Sacramento Bee analysis of the four largest counties to be recounted show some areas the campaign picked also have a disproportionately high population of Latinos and a disproportionately small population of whites and Asian-Americans.
Whether the recount will help Pérez close a 481-vote gap out of 4 million cast and overtake Yee remains to be seen.
But the strategy highlights a system now coming under national criticism from vote-monitoring groups as inherently unfair.
The recount, which began Friday in Bakersfield and El Centro, stems from a state law that allows any voter who can afford it to bankroll a recount in targeted areas. In Pérez's case, it permits him to target precincts in which he secured more votes for a variety of factors, including his ethnicity.
The Bee compared voting results from the June 3 election, census demographic data and the precincts Pérez submitted for recount in four of 15 counties where votes will be reviewed.
The results show that Pérez outpolled Yee by significant margins in the precincts he picked. Their Latino makeup equaled or exceeded that of the counties as a whole.
California has no automatic government-paid recount in close races, requiring the campaign to make choices, Pérez adviser Douglas Herman said.
"The areas that are selected are the areas where we performed well, because the law forces us to choose," said Herman, who declined to go into further detail about the campaign's criteria. "The fact that the margin is as tight as it is and there is no automatic recount is inherently unfair to the candidates and ultimately to the people of the state."
The Yee campaign accuses the Pérez campaign of "cherry-picking" areas for recount. "There are big chunks of L.A. County that Betty Yee won that are not going to be included in a recount," consultant Skelton said, noting that "he's not recounting in overwhelmingly black and Asian precincts."
In Los Angeles County, Pérez chose to recount only 700 of the 4,870 precincts. Those areas, bunched mainly in the south and east of downtown, had a Latino population of 73.6%, compared to 47.7% countywide.
The 700 precincts have an Asian-American population of about 6.5%, less than half of the 13.5% countywide proportion.
"The law is just inherently unfair and flawed," said Mark Halvorson, vice chairman of Minnesota-based Citizens for Election Integrity, who has observed recounts around the country. "The way to ensure people that the correct candidate won is to count every ballot. And that's not going to happen here."
Halvorson's organization recently released a report on recount best practices. Among the recommendations: Taxpayers should pay for recounts in close statewide races. A statewide official should take a prominent public role in the process and communicate it with the public. And there should be maximum efforts to increase transparency, such as by webcasting and posting ballot images on the Web.
As of Friday, the controller's recount lacked any of those.
Pérez's recount filing this week calls for hand recounts in all of Merced and Imperial counties, and partial hand counts in 13 other counties, most of them in Southern and Central California. The remainder of the ballots would be counted by machine, which is cheaper.
In Kern County, the Pérez recount request covers 389 of the county's 444 June 3 precincts.
In Orange County, the 516 precincts selected for hand recount are significantly more Latino in makeup than the county as a whole.