A controversial California election reform bill that had been sailing through the state legislature with the inexplicable support of Democrats after being authored by a Republican lawmaker, has now been substantially rewritten --- some might say 'gutted'.
And that's a very good thing, according to Election Integrity experts we've spoken with.
Earlier this month, The BRAD BLOG wrote exclusively about AB 2369, a state bill which would have limited post-election voter-requested "recounts" in California to all but the very wealthy, given that it would have changed the state Election Code allowing any voter to request and pay for such a count, to require that the funding for the effort come "from the voter's own personal funds".
[NOTE: The BRAD BLOG generally uses quotes around the word "recount" to denote post-election hand-counts of ballots which have never actually been counted by human beings, but rather, only tabulated by computers. It's impossible to know whether those computers actually tallied votes accurately unless paper ballots are examined by hand.]
The new provision would have been a very big change to current law and, as we reported, would restrict voters from raising funds to help pay for such a count. In the process, it would have drastically reduced the opportunity for citizen oversight of public elections in the state.
Democrats in the state Assembly supported AB 2369, as authored by Republican Assemblyman Curt Hagman for unknown reasons. It passed out of the lower chamber late last month by an astounding 66 to 7 vote, before being sent on to the state Senate.
And then we noticed the bill...
Following our exposé two weeks ago, decrying the proposed new measure, it has now been amended by Hagman to remove the central portion of the bill requiring that individuals have enough of their own money to pay for an entire "recount", which can often cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Only the very wealthy --- or existing candidate or initiative campaigns --- would likely have been able to afford them at all.
As we noted in our original report, the real concern about post-election counts among Election Integrity advocates here in California, has been that County Registrars are pretty much allowed to charge anything they want for them. And, making matters worse, election officials are not required to publish those costs in advance of elections. That has led to very substantive allegations, by those who have requested such counts over the years, that some counties arbitrarily inflate the cost of counting ballots after elections in order to keep such counts from happening at all.
Hagman's office told us originally that his proposal was meant to increase "transparency".
"Our goal is not to prevent third parties from contributing, or to restrict accessibility to the recount process," Hagman's Legislative Director said in response to our queries at the time. "Our goal is disclosure."
But post-election hand-counts, when requested and paid for by a voter (or group of voters, under currently), are publicly and transparently carried out by county officials, no matter who pays for them. So the "transparency" argument didn't make a lot of sense, particularly when it could result in all but the wealthiest of state voters being able to afford such oversight at all.
Our report resulted in Election Integrity (EI) experts from the California Voting Rights Task Force (VRTF), among others, sending letters in opposition to AB 2369 in advance of state Senate committee hearings on the bill.
The backlash then led to the offending provision being struck entirely from the legislation last week. The VRTF, we have been informed, has subsequently "withdrawn its opposition to the bill."
Jim Soper, co-chair of the VRTF, a non-profit watchdog organization, told us after withdrawing their objections that AB 2369 "was a poorly written, and should never have gotten out of the Assembly Elections Committee."
He offered us "kudos" on highlighting the bill in the first place, and added: "after opposition from EI advocates and suggestions from Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office, it seems to have been properly amended by Asm. Hagman. That's appreciated."
"The amendments to the legislation are thoughtful and welcomed," former Riverbank, CA Mayor Virginia Madueño told us upon learning the news. Madueño was one of those who had been charged absurdly high prices --- $2,000 per hour (or $20 per ballot during her 5-hour "recount") --- after the computer tabulators had initially reported that she had lost her 2012 election by just 53 votes.
"Our legislators should consider removing additional existing legislative barriers to recounts, as our State does not have automatic recounts for close races as in some other states," she added.
Previously, told The BRAD BLOG that she believed the bill would "severely limit the ability of private citizens such as myself to request a recount if they personally can't pay for it themselves." She called the bill, before it was amended, "an impediment to a true democratic process for California's citizens."
Dr. John Maa, the main proponent and funder of the first ever statewide "recount" of a state ballot initiative --- Prop 29, the failed 2012 initiative that would have raised taxes on cigarettes to pay for cancer research --- also lauded the changes to the bill.
"I applaud the intelligence of Assemblyman Hagman to incorporate feedback and amend AB 2369," Maa told us. During the Prop 29 "recount", Maa had encountered wildly disparate prices from county to county. For example, he was charged .29 per ballot in Orange County and then $2.86 to count each ballot in Sacramento.
"The Elections Code pertaining to recounts can be difficult to interpret," he says, "which explains why some California Registrars inadvertently billed for recount costs that were not allowable by law." One such case was the attempted, then aborted, post-election "recount" of Prop 37, a 2012 GMO labeling initiative which reportedly failed. Proponents of the measure wanted to make sure. In that case, their attempted count was derailed in Fresno County after the Registrar there demanded $18,000 before a single ballot could be counted, while informing the voters who had requested the count that they'd need to pay more than $4,000/day to count thereafter. As we reported at the time, the prices were both excessive and in apparent violation of state law.
"The stated intent of AB 2369 to promote transparency could be advanced further by requiring Registrars to post accurate estimates of recount costs on websites, and by extending the deadline to request the recount of a statewide ballot measure five additional days, which would allow requesters to review the [Secretary of State's] certified Statement of the Vote before making their final decision to request a recount," Maa told us after the bill was amended last week.
For now, however, no such changes have been made to the legislation to actually improve post-election citizen-requested counts. What's left in the measure is almost identical to current law, begging the question as to why the bill is moving forward at all at this point, rather than simply being withdrawn entirely.
Our queries to that effect to Hagman's office have so far gone unanswered. But, in any case, we're just glad to see that the dangerous provisions of this legislation have now been neutered.
We'll take it. It's nice to have a "win" around here every now and again.
• Our original report on AB 2369 is here: "Exclusive: California Legislature Moves to Restrict Citizen-Requested Election 'Recounts'"
• And for still more good voting news in California this week, please see: "Shadowy Photo ID Voter Initiative Fails in CA"