A lawsuit over the scrapped effort to recount the results of Long Beach’s Measure A election last March — which could determine how LA County handles future recount elections — is set to head to trial.
The ballot measure, which passed by 16 votes out of nearly 100,000 votes cast, indefinitely extended the 10-year, 10.25% city sales tax that voters passed in 2016.
The Long Beach Reform Coalition, a group that opposed the measure and argued throughout the campaign that the city had not been a good steward of the money it received from the tax already, sought a recount of the election given its razor-thin margin. But the process, members of the group have said, was far more expensive and less transparent than the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office initially claimed.
A spokesperson for the Registrar-Recorder said the office cannot comment on pending litigation, but attorneys for Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan wrote in recent court filings that every aspect of the recount process was conducted lawfully.
The recount in question began April 8, 2020, but Ian Patton — a representative of the Long Beach Reform Coalition who officially requested it — had to cancel the effort after less than a week because of the high costs. The organization has claimed the county’s process has effectively barred the public from being able to have full confidence in the election results.
So the Long Beach Reform Coalition sued Logan last May, seeking a full, manual recount of the election at the initial estimated costs and for the county to change its ballot-sorting and -counting process moving forward.
The lawsuit will go to trial on Wednesday, July 7.
The Long Beach Reform Coalition’s argument centers on how the recount process changed thanks to new voting equipment and processes that LA County debuted in the March 2020 elections.
Under California state law, there is no provision requiring an automatic recount, even in races as close as Long Beach’s Measure A election. So a recount for the tight race could only be called by the county clerk’s office, if there were reasonable cause to believe ballots had been miscounted, or if a voter requested it within five days of the certification.
Logan declined to initiate the recount himself, because he said there was not reasonable cause to believe ballots had been miscounted. So Patton requested it — and, the law says, he must bear the cost of the labor and equipment required for the county to complete the process, and pay daily deposits. If the recount ultimately overturned the result of the election, the money would have been refunded.
By the time the recount began last April, the group had raised about $50,000, and Patton was confident the coalition could fund a full recount — but he didn’t know at the time that the cost estimates in the county’s own election handbook were outdated.
Unlike the prior voting procedures, ballots were not organized by precinct for the March elections because of the county’s new voting system, meaning the process of retrieving ballots would be much more time- and labor-intensive. And county officials later told Patton the cost of that extra time and labor would be passed on to the requester of the recount.
All told, Patton would eventually learn, the cost of the process would likely top $200,000.
“The Registrar wants us to pay upwards of $200,000 or more (itself just a guesstimate on his office’s part) to sort out his ballots,” Patton said in a Thursday email. “We feel that is clearly a County responsibility, because the County implemented a new voting system with no mechanism for ballot sorting.
“Recounts must be conducted by precinct, according to state law, and so the question of who pays the titanic bill for the overwhelming physical labor required to sort out that absurd mountain of millions of mixed up ballots,” he added, “is what’s at issue in this case.”
While Logan’s office declined to comment on the case, it’s clear from court documents that have been filed so far that the Registrar-Recorder’s position is that the process for the nixed Measure A recount was entirely lawful.
Though recount costs were lower with the county’s prior voting system, Logan’s attorneys wrote in a court filing earlier this month, those lower costs were “an incidental benefit recount requesters presumably used to enjoy but are not entitled to under law.”
Instead, his lawyers wrote, the Registrar-Recorder’s duty is to prevent the taxpayers from shouldering the financial burden of recounts.
“No fundamental voting or equal protection right has been infringed, and the Registrar’s practices are neither severe nor discriminatory,” the June 7 filing said. “Indeed, the Registrar’s ministerial duty requires him to recoup costs from the recount requester to avoid a gift of public funds.”
While the lawsuit seeks a full Measure A recount at the initial lower estimates, it also hopes to curtail the high costs of recounts going forward by requiring the Registrar-Recorder’s office to organize voted ballots and sort them by precinct as a normal practice for every election, at the county’s expense, along with other mandates.
But Logan’s attorneys argued that his office’s duty to ensure requesters — and not the public — pay for recounts extends to all labor associated with the process, including sorting ballots.
“The Registrar’s actions are not arbitrary or capricious, as recount procedures and the manner by which cost estimates are determined have remained the same, and there are no legal requirements that voting models or systems consider recount costs,” the court filing said. “The Registrar’s ministerial duty thus compels him to estimate and charge Petitioners for all costs, including the retrieval and organization of ballots into precincts, which costs would not have been incurred but for the recount.”
It seems the future of election recounts in LA County — and the costs associated with them — could hinge on the lawsuit and how the judge will weigh the two arguments next month.