Judge appears to reject lawsuit alleging county’s election recount fees are unconstitutionally high

A Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge tentatively denied a petition Friday that was filed against Los Angeles County election officials over the high costs of the Measure A recount last year, stating that the projected $240,000 cost of the recount did not violate anyone’s constitutional voting rights.

In a tentative ruling posted Friday morning, Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied the Long Beach Reform Coalition’s request for the court to order county election officials to pick up the tab for collecting the roughly 100,000 ballots cast in the March 2020 election so they could be counted at a “reasonable” cost, which the coalition contended was outlined in the county’s estimated recount fee schedule.

A final ruling is expected soon.

Measure A, which was originally supposed to be a 10-year sales tax increase, became permanent after voters approved it by 16 votes.

Because the county lacks an automatic trigger for recounts, and the county’s top election official, Registrar-Recorder Clerk Dean Logan didn’t order one, the Reform Coalition started the recount process last spring.

Original estimates for the recount had risen to as much as $84,000, but the March 2020 election was the first time that the county had used its new VSAP voter system, the county’s answer to a statewide Voters Choice Act, that allowed LA County residents to vote from anywhere in the county instead of neighborhood precincts.

The county estimated last year that it could take 16 days at $12,000 per day to locate all the physical ballots.

The cost to conduct the recount quickly grew to nearly $240,000, leading the coalition to call off the process and file a lawsuit against the county after trying a digital recount alternative for a handful of days.

In his tentative ruling, Beckloff said that while some voting laws, like those that restrict access to voting, are subject to strict scrutiny, the cost of a recount is not one of those rules.

“The right to vote is separate and distinct from the right to request and obtain a recount,” Beckloff wrote in his tentative ruling. “Similarly, a right to obtain a vote recount is separate and distinct from the right to ensure one’s vote is properly counted in the first instance.”

Beckloff added that the county did not deny the group’s statutory rights to conduct a recount, instead it was the cost that led the coalition to end its recount efforts.  Beckloff said that state law allows for election officials to pass on the cost of a recount to the requesters and added that the coalition failed to draw a clear line in which the cost of a recount becomes unconstitutional.

“We disagree with the court’s contention that by simply following the law that it can’t be arbitrary,” said Dale Larson, an attorney representing the coalition.

Larson alleged that the design of the county’s new voting system did not take into account a recount, and how not tracking ballots might affect the price of one. Larson said that the new design has led to prohibitively expensive recounts and limits a statutory right of voters to be able to request one.

He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that stated a $57,000 recount charge was “exclusionary and discriminatory” and noted that the Measure A costs were three times that. Larson said providing greater access to voting should not come with less access to recounts.

“We don’t think that providing an ability to vote anywhere is mutually exclusive with providing a recount that people can afford,” Larson said. “We think the county can do both.”

The Measure A recount, had it been seen through to the end, likely would’ve become the most expensive recount in county history, a county spokesperson said last year.

The higher projected costs were the result of a number of factors including the pandemic, which required the county to change how they counted ballots to ensure social distancing, and the new voting system that allowed ballots be cast anywhere between Long Beach and Lancaster.

This complicated finding ballots because instead of voters having casted them in predetermined precincts the ballots could have hypothetically been cast from anywhere in the county. Los Angeles County has over 5.6 million registered voters.

Measure A, originally passed by Long Beach voters in 2016, raised the city’s sales tax to 10.25% and was originally supposed to expire in January 2027. The sales tax has generated about $60 million annually that the city has used to prop up police and fire services as well as invest in infrastructure projects like community center remodels and park projects.

The City Council put the measure back on the ballot in 2020 as it became clear that it could be replaced by another county or regional tax, reasoning that Long Beach taxpayers’ dollars should stay in the city if the city’s sales tax was to remain at the state maximum anyway.

Voters approved the measure by just 16 votes in the March 2020 election with Measure A approval taking its final lead on the last day of vote tallying coming on the last day of counting.

Ian Patton, who filed the suit on behalf of the coalition, said he was optimistic that the final ruling could change. But if it’s upheld, Patton said that it could spell trouble for public trust in future elections.

“If you can’t ask for the proper election officials to count the actual paper ballots then you’re entirely reliant on the software to tell you the result,” Patton said. “That’s not going to do anything for restoring confidence in our political environment.”

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

Measure A reveals a new glitch in county’s new voting system: Costly recounts

 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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