California controller race recount won't begin in Fresno County until August

The Fresno BeeJuly 14, 2014 

Who finished second to Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin in primary balloting for the state controller job -- Betty Yee, left, or John Perez?

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The unprecedented recount in the state controller's race is underway, but Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth says it isn't likely to start here until mid-August.

When it does, election workers will be asked to recount votes in 212 of the county's 447 precincts. Orth estimates the task will take 10 days.

The recount started Friday in Kern and Imperial counties. Monday, Orth said she and her counterparts in the other dozen counties where full or partial recounts have been requested will learn more about the process as it moves along.

Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez requested the partial recount after he finished third in the controller's race behind Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee.

The top two move on to the November general election, and while Swearengin is safely in first place, Pérez finished just 481 votes behind Yee.

One longtime state political analyst says that whichever way it goes, the big winner is likely Swearengin.

"The longer it goes on, it puts doubt into the process, and makes it harder for Yee to go out and raise money," said former Republican legislative aide Tony Quinn. He added that fundraising isn't much of an issue for Pérez, but it has been for Yee.

"All of this helps Swearengin," Quinn said. "This is a break for her that they can't decide who her opponent is."

Quinn took exception with the notion that a "cherry-picked" recount is even possible, and said he thinks it'll be for naught.

He looked back to the 2000 presidential contest in Florida, when George W. Bush was ultimately declared the winner in Florida by 537 votes. The win gave him enough electoral votes to win the presidency, but Quinn said Democratic challenger Al Gore possibly could have selectively picked enough specific precincts for recounts to close that gap. Bush could have then responded the same way.

The recount in the controller's race is moving in sequential order. Imperial County officials estimate it will take up to two weeks to recount the entire county, and Kern officials estimate two to three weeks to recount the 389 precincts requested by the Pérez campaign.

San Bernardino County is up next, and officials there estimate it will take at least eight days to recount 495 of 1,662 precincts.

Fresno County is scheduled to follow San Bernardino, and that is how Ortharrived at the mid-August prediction.

Orth said her office is working through the specific details required for a recount, but based on what she knows now, the daily cost is estimated to be between $5,000 to $5,500. The Pérez campaign must pay all recount costs.

To complicate matters, Monday was the first day of candidate filing for the Nov. 4 election, and the Fresno County elections office is also tasked with verifying 55,000 signatures on a state petition by Aug. 1.

Orth said she will bring in between 10 and 15 extra staffers to assist with the recount.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said it is still a guessing game to figure out how long the recount will take. It's only the third recount in a statewide contest -- and the first involving candidates (the other two, in 2012, were for ballot initiatives).

Testament to the uncertainty, Velayas said "it doesn't have to be a linear process."

In other words, while the order has been set, the Pérez campaign may choose to alter it.

"If the requester (Pérez) wants to jump to county seven, they can do that," Velayas said.

If the process plays out to the end, which is 15 counties involving 4,103 precincts, the recount could stretch well into the November campaign season.

Some preparation work for the November election is already underway, and the recount could push up against when ballots are sent to overseas voters such as military members.

Quinn, the political analyst, said that as the state navigates uncharted waters, the recount will likely be abandoned before any crisis point is reached. The reason: In the 14 years since the Bush vs. Gore presidential debacle in Florida, improvements have been made in balloting that have vastly reduced the number of ballot miscounts.

"Ballots are clean," he said. "There are no hanging chads anymore. Ballots are fairly easy to mark and are then put through a scanning system."

Quinn said he thinks Pérez will quit because he'll find in Kern and Imperial counties that few, if any, votes will be changed.

In the first-day tally in Kern in which five precincts were recounted, Perez actually lost a vote.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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