Los Angeles County’s new voting system has taken a lot of flak after voting centers on election night were overwhelmed with long lines and technical glitches.
Add another complaint to the list: Recounts requested by the public have become more expensive and cumbersome due to the fact that voters can cast ballots anywhere in the county.
And Measure A, an indefinite extension of Long Beach’s sales tax passed in 2016, has become a test case for recounts under the new system.
After the measure passed by just 16 votes on the final day of updates from the county—despite trailing since election night—a recount requested by opponents has now become mired in the courts after the estimated tab reached as high as $200,000.
Complicating matters is the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevents election workers from gathering in larger groups to sort and count ballots.
New social distancing guidelines put in place by a county health order meant that boards, typically consisting of four people at a single table reviewing ballots, sometimes with lawyers, volunteers or handwriting experts hovering over them as the counted, would have to be spaced out.
The culmination of these factors resulted in what would have been the largest expense paid by a recount requestor in the history of Los Angeles County. That is, had recount not been called off by county election officials earlier this month.
Most expensive recount in county history
Pandemic or not, the recount of Measure A was going to be unprecedented. This was the first time the county rolled out its new voting system that could produce digitized versions of ballots entered into the new digital voting machines.
Instead of counting physical ballots, the Measure A recount was conducted by reviewing these digital scans of individual ballots, something the county regarded as a testament to the improvements brought by the new voting system. Recount proponents, however, viewed this method as unconstitutional.
Accounts of the brief recount process and video and photos reviewed by the Post showed the difficulty of the county’s efforts to both comply with social distancing requirements while also carrying out a recount of over 100,000 Long Beach ballots.
Workers were stationed at separate desks with digital images of ballots on their individual screens as one team member would call out the vote for the others to verify. Supervisors and observers milled around the room to verify that the counts were accurate.
One observer said that the county was “really stretching the limits” of the 6-foot rule to accommodate the recount. This was uncharted territory for the county.
“The manual recount using digital images had not been previously executed,” Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder-Clerk spokesperson Mike Sanchez said in an email.
Sanchez said that COVID-19 required additional space for the counters and the observers and that workers had to be supplied with personal protective equipment while counting. The number of boards that were available for the recount was impacted by some employees serving as disaster assistance workers and by others opting to shelter at home.
Sanchez did not say how this added complication may have impacted the timeline for completion or the cost of the recount. The projected cost of this undertaking, according to those who requested it, said it easily exceeded $200,000.
Sanchez said the previous high price tag for a recount charged by the county was in 2012 for a statewide measure that would have taxed tobacco products to fund cancer research. That recount cost more than $100,000, Sanchez said.
That would have likely made Measure A the most expensive recount in county history had it been seen through until the end. A large part of the projected cost was attributed to ballot retrieval.
The county had previously said that its new system allowed for quick location and retrieval of ballots regardless of where a person had voted. However, in an email sent to the recount requestor from Alex Olvera, an election division manager with the county, on the eve of the recount the projected costs spiked.
Olvera’s email, obtained by the Post, showed that eight boards would now cost between $13,000 and $18,300 per day. Retrieving the ballots would take more time than previous recounts because “physical extraction was less time consuming and more straightforward” with it typically taking two staff members to complete.
“Under the new system, it is projected to take 8 teams (16 staff) and many more days. New ballot extraction, as opposed to old ballot extraction, is why the daily deposit is higher,” Olvera wrote in the April 7 email.
Sanchez said it’s hard to determine if the Measure A recount would have been cheaper under the old system—one that stored ballots by precinct—or that if the high price tag of a recount was a new norm under the new voting system.
Ian Patton, executive director of the Long Beach Reform Coalition who filed the recount request as a private resident of the city, contends that the method used by the county is not allowed by the state’s election code and that the price of the recount was inflated by a poorly designed system.
“It was designed in such an incredibly impotent way that it didn’t envision a recount process,” Patton said. “That’s the only takeaway from a system that mixes two million ballots and makes it so that if you want to get them back you have to dig through thousands of boxes.”
Under the county’s published recount guide, Patton said he should have been entitled to eight count teams of four people each at a cost of $10,854 per day. Instead he received four count teams and was told that in order to count the physical ballots he would have to pay about $11,700 per day for 16 days to find and prepare the ballots before the counting even began.
Patton opted to go with a cheaper process that counted digital images of the ballots before growing frustrated with the process. On the third day he turned in a required daily deposit for the amount for eight count teams under the published recount guide instead of the new higher price he was required to pay.
The recount was called off by the county because of insufficient funds being deposited, and now Patton has said he is likely to challenge it in court.
Patton said the challenge could come in the form of attacking the new prices as a poll tax, one that precludes ordinary, non-wealthy residents from requesting a recount.
“If you’re a rich campaign or a rich political incumbent you can afford a recount and nobody else can,” Patton said. “What good is a count if it can’t be audited?”
He said that his attorneys are currently drafting the lawsuit which could be filed as soon as Monday. The effort was boosted by a grant this week from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, which contributed $20,000 to help fuel Patton’s pending legal challenge.
The vote by mail exception
Los Angeles County was not the only county to implement vote centers with digital voting tools during the March 3 primary, but it was one of the few to have disastrously long lines. It was also the only county out of 14 others statewide that participated in the new model that did not have to send every registered voter in its county a vote by mail ballot.
Out of all the counties that participated, LA was by far the largest county and was left out of this requirement largely due to the cost of printing ballots for the millions of voters in the county.
Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said this could have been the one of the keys to both the long lines and the sorting issues that led to the inflated recount costs. County supervisors voted Tuesday to send vote by mail ballots to every registered voter in the county.
Levitt said that other counties, like Orange County, did not see the same issues as Los Angeles and he speculated whether the ballots had not been sorted by the county as they were being counted. Each ballot has a tracker number and precinct on them, but he said it appears they may have just been fed through the reader and then into boxes.
“That could be a problem for not just this recount but other recounts in the future,” Levitt said.
Levitt said the cost of recounts is put in place to discourage frivolous requests, but added that 16 votes is well within the margin of error. More than 100,000 people cast ballots for or against Measure A.
California, like a majority of other states, lacks a trigger for an automatic recount in close races that would require the state to pay for the cost of the recount. In 2015 Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that allows the state to pick up the tab for statewide races only if the governor initiates the recount process.
Los Angeles County similarly lacks a recount trigger, but allows for a county-funded recount to be called if the county clerk believes there were issues in a given race. Long Beach has an automatic recount threshold for individual candidates but not for measures.
This system that requires the individuals to request and fund recount costs regardless of the level of government has led to recounts in California as a whole being exceedingly rare with cost almost always being the most significant barrier.
Levitt said that a 16-vote margin is essentially saying the two sides were tied and other races throughout recent history like the 2004 Washington governor’s race or even the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore show that races can swing on much larger vote margins.
But before a recount can happen the county has to have a good way to conduct one, something Levitt is unsure exists right now. He said that some cost should be expected when requesting a recount but he questioned how much is reasonable.
“The big problem is they had the published prices and then kind of changed that pricing at the last minute,” Levitt said.
The Long Beach Way
In April 2012 the city’s 4th City Council district ended in an unexpected tight race. The incumbent, Patrick O’Donnell, was seeking reelection against challengers John Watkins and Daryl Supernaw.
When the dust settled on election night, Supernaw was in the lead and O’Donnell sat just 12 votes ahead of Watkins. By state law, an automatic recount was initiated and two days later Supernaw and O’Donnell, whose lead grew by 40 votes, advanced to the runoff.
O’Donnell later vacated the seat mid-term after he was elected to the California State Assembly and Supernaw eventually took the seat during a 2015 special election. Supernaw had originally considered requesting a recount on his own, before the state’s mandatory rules kicked in for races decided by less than one half of one percentage point or less than 50 votes.
He knew that O’Donnell would be the tougher opponent in the runoff but there was one obstacle: He didn’t have the $12,000 to request a recount.
“To say I was underfunded is an understatement,” Supernaw said.
He said the recount process at the city level is a labor intensive process that requires resources like lawyers, handwriting experts and volunteers from each campaign to oversee the process. And that was in addition to the four-person count teams, all of which had someone hovering over their shoulder.
The 2012 recount was conducted in the basement of the old City Hall, but Supernaw said he couldn’t imagine how that process could play out with everyone having to be 6 feet apart, adding that the old way of counting would be “virtually impossible.”
Despite the added obstacles the county had to deal with due to COVID-19, Supernaw said that future recounts should be different from this year’s if only in how much they cost.
“It shouldn’t be cost prohibitive,” he said.
How much would a recount have cost if it were administered by the city rather than the county? The exact figure is unclear, but Long Beach City Clerk Monique De La Garza said it “probably would have been a little cheaper.”
“It would have been cheaper because it would have been easier to get the ballots and we could just have processed the 106,000 ballots,” De La Garza said. “We don’t have quite the overhead that LA County has. But that’s just speculation because I’ve never been part of citywide recount.
She applauded the county for being able to string together count teams and a process in a short amount of time amid a pandemic. It had to set up computers, hard drives and download all the ballots onto each one so the counters could be looking at the same thing and the same time. And it was able to find the staffing to configure four count teams to carry it out.
De La Garza said that the county may have to revisit how to make recounts easier in the future after this experience in an effort to draw down costs. But she added that it’s not impossible to afford a recount noting that the county did complete one other recount in full this month.
“There’s a fine line between who bears the burden,” De La Garza said. “It’s unfair to put that on the county and say they have to pick up the tab of a recount for democracy.”
Whether future elections or recounts happen at the county level or back at the city level could depend on recent litigation and the city’s willingness to develop a new voting system. Long Beach and other charter cities were forced to align their elections with the state in 2015 due to low voter turnout.
Last month, Redondo Beach won an appeal that ruled charter cities are not beholden to the state laws dictating when and how elections should be held. If Long Beach were to follow suit and break from its current election alignment it would first have to replace its old decertified voting system, De La Garza said.
“If we did want to continue doing our own elections going forward we’d have to invest in a new election system which is costly,” she said. “We would still have to have to follow their election calendar.”