Recount costs soar as county begins tracking down Long Beach ballots

The cost to potentially reverse the results of last month’s vote to indefinitely extend the Measure A sales-tax increase has ballooned to over $200,000 according to opponents who filed the recount request last week.

Ian Patton, executive director of the Long Beach Reform Coalition, filed the recount request as a private resident last week.  He said that Los Angeles County election officials informed him this week that a physical recount of ballots cast last month could cost well over $200,000.

Last week, officials from the county office told the Press Telegram that its initial estimate was that the recount could cost upward of $84,000.

“It’s beyond stupid frustrating, aggravating, enraging,” Patton said. “We still don’t really know how this is going to play out.”

Measure A, a sales-tax increase that was supposed to expire in January 2027, was given an indefinite extension last month after county election officials certified its 16-vote victory.

The tax has brought in tens of millions of dollars into the city since 2016, which has helped the city improve infrastructure and maintain and build on its fire and police ranks.

The razor-thin margin immediately prompted an outcry for a recount and a fundraising drive by residents who wanted to pitch in to the effort that was expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Patton said that the increased costs are not due to what he anticipated could lead to a steeper recount-fee—logistical changes put in place because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements—but are due to the county’s new voting system that was put into practice on a large scale for the first time last month.

The new system allowed voters to cast ballots anywhere in the county rather than requiring them vote at predetermined neighborhood polling places or through the mail.

Patton says this has resulted in the county advising him that more workers will be needed to comb through thousands of boxes of ballots to locate all of the nearly 100,000 votes cast for Measure A that could have theoretically been cast anywhere between Long Beach and Lancaster. In order for a recount to be validated, each vote cast must be recounted according to the county’s guidelines.

He said county election officials told him it could cost $11,000 per day to locate the ballots, then he’d still have to pay for the recount costs.

“It used to take minutes and now it takes 16 people and 16 days and we’re supposed to pay for that?” Patton said. “If they [the county] hold to this position we’re obviously going to have to challenge this in court.”

Patton turned in his deposit to get the recount process started Wednesday but said that he does not intend to continue raising money in anticipation of settling a bill of $200,000 or more.

Doing so, he said, would legitimize the county’s new system, which Patton claims has made recounts impossible going forward as the price to carry one out has made them prohibitive to independent residents who don’t have the resources of the municipalities they’re challenging.

The county’s guidance on contesting election results released this year does not go into detail about having to track down ballots but states that “additional costs for examining relevant material may apply beyond the cost for recounting ballots.”

A county spokesperson said Wednesday evening that while voters were able to cast ballots from any location in the county the new system allows the county track which boxes they end up in and where those boxes are located.

They did not offer a firm cost estimate but said that the ultimate price for a full recount could depend on a number of factors including the number of days it takes to complete it and how many boards—the teams of counters—that are requested by Patton’s group.

The old voting system that sorted ballots by the precincts they were cast in did allow for faster retrieval, the spokesperson said, but the new system, which produces a high quality image of the ballot when it’s submitted could eliminate the need for physical sorting.

Long Beach’s last recount was held in 2013 when then Councilman Patrick O’Donnell was facing off against challenger Daryl Supernaw in an election that O’Donnell eventually won before leaving office to pursue his current position in the California State Assembly.

However, that recount was done under the watch of the Long Beach City Clerk, not the county. The Long Beach City Council voted in January 2016 to consolidate its elections with LA County to avoid confusion over what had come to be known as “Two Vote Tuesday.”

Voters previously had to vote for municipal elections at one portion of a polling site and go to another part to cast votes for countywide issues.

In October 2017 the city was forced to align its election schedule with the state, which further cemented its coordination with the county.

The county has carried out 49 recounts between 1980 and 2018, with only three results being overturned between the period. The last recount to successfully reverse election night results was 1997 contest for a school board position in West Covina, according to a county document.

Editors note: This story has been updated with comments from county election officials. 

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