Costs of recounts, fate of Measure A, could hinge on challenge to county’s new recount rules

A lawsuit challenging the recount process of a 2020 vote that permanently extended a Long Beach sales-tax increase is headed to trial next week and the outcome of the case could determine how costly recounts could be in going forward.

Measure A, a 1% sales-tax increase that the city originally said would last for 10 years, was made permanent by a margin of 16 votes during last March’s municipal election.

The city has used the roughly $60 million the tax generates annually to fund road and infrastructure fixes and also to maintain staffing levels for the city’s fire and police departments.

It faced vocal opposition from community groups like the Long Beach Reform Coalition, which seized on the measure’s slim victory to request a recount from Los Angeles County election officials.

However, a new $300 million voting system that allows ballots to be turned in from anywhere in the county, and a global pandemic that created a shortage of workers and mandated physical distancing for those who were available, complicated the recount and pushed the projected cost of it well over $200,000.

Ian Patton, the executive director of the coalition, said he had originally calculated he would need between $15,000 and $24,000 to pay for a manual recount based on estimates included in the county’s recount handbook.

However, that number quickly ballooned to $238,000 after county election officials notified him the coalition would have to pay for the cost of locating Long Beach ballots among the entire county’s ballot pool. Over 2.1 million people cast votes in the March election and the county estimated it would cost over $187,000 to track them down. He criticized the system created by state legislators through the California Voters Choice Act for not accounting for how to avoid having to hunt down individual votes amid millions of ballots.

“Everything is now very modern, slick and wonderful but if you want to have a recount you have to go back to the stone ages,” Patton said. “I can’t believe that’s an accident.”

After two days of trying to conduct a recount using digital images, the cheaper option made possible by the new voting machines, Patton called off the recount and filed a lawsuit against LA County Registrar Recorder Clerk Dean Logan in May demanding the county pick up the tab to locate the Long Beach ballots so a manual hand count could be conducted.

Both Patton and the county said that four votes changed during the short process but the county said that the change was a net-zero, which is typical during recounts, but Patton alleged that making the use of physical ballots economically impossible is illegal.

With the new voting system that LA County participated in for the first time last year individual neighborhood precincts were eliminated in favor of fewer voting centers that were open for 11 days prior to Election Day. LA County voters could vote anywhere in the county, or by mail, but if if the county is not sorting them as they’re being counted it could raise problems for this recount and others, Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, told the Post last year. 

Unlike statewide contests, for which the governor can initiate a recount, county and citywide elections have no trigger for recounts. In the case of Measure A, Logan would have had to call for the recount if he suspected there were inaccuracies with the count, but he did not.

Attorneys representing Logan and the county argued in court documents that Logan’s office has the right to pursue full compensation for the recount because the cost of conducting one was never intended to be covered by public dollars.

They also argued that Patton’s lower estimates were based on a table “inadvertently included” on the county’s website at the time he requested a recount and those prices were no longer valid under the new voting system.

Logan’s office declined to comment citing the ongoing litigation.

The biggest price difference hinges on how votes are not collected. The old system that saw voters cast ballots at predetermined precincts allowed for quick retrieval of ballots because they were sorted as they were turned in. However, the new voting system that allows voters to cast ballots from anywhere in the county does not.

Patton alleges this has illegally made recounts financially unattainable for most people. The county’s lawyers claimed economical recounts were never ingrained in county law. 
“The petitioners’ grievance is premised on an incidental benefit recount requesters presumably used to enjoy but are not entitled to under law,” they wrote in a response to the lawsuit.

They contended that recounts historically have not been a “low-cost endeavor” with it not being uncommon for recounts in large counties to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A spokesperson for the county clerk’s office told the Post in May 2020 that the previous high charged by the county was for a tobacco tax measure that cost “more than $100,000.”

Because the city consolidated its elections with the county in 2016 it no longer is in charge of conducting recounts for city elections. However, the city clerk estimated last year that a citywide recount of Measure A could cost up to $84,000.

The July 7 bench-trial of the case could set a legal precedent for the cost of recounts for the 15 counties in the state that have already adopted the new election model that allows voting from anywhere in the county.

If the judge rules in favor of the county those pursuing manual recounts could be charged for a larger cost for retrieving ballots before the counting even begins, but if they rule in favor of the coalition, the Measure A recount could begin again.

The coalition is holding a fundraiser July 1 in anticipation of a ruling in its favor with Patton saying any donations will go toward the cost of recounting the ballots.

Patton said he doesn’t feel any remorse for what might happen if Measure A is overturned and the city loses access to $60 million a year to use for infrastructure and public safety noting that it’s not “free money coming out of the sky” and that the elimination of the tax could help businesses still hurting from the pandemic. He’s optimistic that the judge will side with the coalition.

“I feel about as good as you can feel about something that is inherently uphill,” Patton said.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.