Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters charges $2,000/hour --- $20 per ballot --- in recent mayoral election 'recount'...
By Brad Friedman on 3/19/2013, 7:35am PT  

Early last month, The BRAD BLOG offered an exclusive special report on how a single Registrar of Voters in Fresno County, CA effectively stopped a citizen-organized attempt to confirm the results of last November's Prop 37 initiative dead in its tracks. She was able to stop an attempted post-election hand count of the paper ballots in her county by charging the proponents of the count an outrageous and seemingly arbitrary high price to carry out the count.

Now, a very similar story is being reported in regard to an attempt to confirm the results of a mayoral race in another California county where the "losing" candidate is said to have lost by just 53 votes. In that case, rather than an outrageous $4,000 per day to count the paper ballots again, as was the case for Prop 37 in Fresno, the candidate has been charged $2,000 per hour for her attempt to verify that the results of her contest were accurately reported by the computer system.

The much-watched Prop 37 initiative last November, had it passed, would have required Genetically Modified foods to be labeled as such. The measure was opposed by corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont and Hershey with a $44 million propaganda blitz against the landmark initiative in progressive California.

The proposition's loss surprised supporters of the measure, some of whom joined in a post-election effort to hand-count the paper ballots from the contest in a number of counties to ensure the secretly-tallied computer results were accurate. After hand-counting ballots in Orange and Sierra Counties, where no unusual irregularities were discovered, the effort was stymied in Fresno County by outrageously high and seemingly illegal pricing set for the "recount" by the county's recently-appointed Registrar Brandi Orth.

As we detailed, while the County Clerk in Orange had charged the proponents a reasonable $600/day for hand-counting ballots, and the Registrar in Sierra had charged just $500/day, Fresno's Orth had attempted to charge some $4,000/day. And that was in addition to a "start up" fee of $14,000 that proponents and Election Integrity advocates were also told they'd need to cough up in cash before a single ballot could be hand-counted there.

The seemingly arbitrary pricing for confirming the results in Fresno ended up putting the kibosh on the attempted statewide count. As we described in the report, the case echoed a similar attempt by Election Integrity advocates to hand-count paper ballots in a contested Special Election for the U.S. House in San Diego County in 2006. There, the county Registrar had attempted to charge approximately $1.00 per ballot (with some 150,000 cast) to confirm the results. That was in contrast to the .14 per ballot charged by neighboring Orange County for a separate hand-count not long before.

The extraordinary $2,000/hour costs being charged in Stanislaus County, however, put all of that to shame. And it underscores, once again, how the lack of standards for "recount" pricing make laughable the notion that computer-tallied paper ballots are just fine because "they can always be counted later if there are any questions about results later on."

As we learn once again in California, where the "recount" laws are actually amongst the most liberal in the country, the ability for citizens to confirm the results of secretly-tallied computer-results after they are certified is no easy feat. It's often impossible. Making the matter more outrageous, a single county clerk can effectively block the entire process...

According to an excellent report by Ken Carlson at the Modesto Bee, former Riverbank, CA Mayor Virginia Madueño is currently contesting charges leveed by Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan that amount to $20 per ballot, as counted in during a 5-hour hand-count last December.

Madueño's attorney told Carlson that her client received "written statements" from the Registrar "that the recount would cost $300 an hour, with a $2,400 deposit required each day of the recount."

In January, however, after the count, the former Mayor received a letter notifying her that a $7,817 balance was owed to the county --- more than three times the estimate she was given before the recount. According to the Bee, that count was not even done by hand. It was carried out on the same oft-failed, easily-manipulated optical-scan computers that tallied the votes in the first place (either correctly or incorrectly. Who knows?)

There were only about 6,000 votes cast in the entire race, and Madueño only checked about 500 of them from one precinct before calling off the post-election tally.

Carlson reports the totals now being charged to the candidate are "about 10 times the highest charges assessed by counties in the statewide Proposition 29 recount last year."

Our report on Prop 37 offered a number of details from Dr. John Maa, the man who filed for and bankrolled that Prop 29 recount. (That measure, had it been successful on the June 2012 ballot, would have added a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund cancer research.) Maa told The BRAD BLOG that he found "a wide variability of recount costs across the State of California" during both the Prop 29 and Prop 37 counts. (He served as an unofficial adviser on the latter.) He also complained that bills for thousands of dollars in additional costs were sent from two counties after the hand-counts were completed.

Here are some of the per ballot costs he cited to us from his Prop 29 "recount":

  • Orange County: .29 per ballot
  • Placer County: .94 per ballot
  • Los Angeles County: $2.24 per ballot
  • Sacramento County: $3.86 per ballot

"As our State does not have a mandatory trigger for an automatic recount in the case of a close contest," Maa told us at the time, "requesting a recount remains the primary strategy to audit the certified results." He said he believed that state "Registrars have misapplied the Elections Code and Secretary of State's instructions about allowable recount expenses." Our report explicitly detailed those expenses in the case of Fresno's pricing for the aborted Prop 37 count.

"A candidate or recount requester should not be disadvantaged in one county relative to a candidate/requester in a neighboring County where the recount fees can be an order of magnitude less expensive," he said, citing another recent attempted "recount" in a race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which, he said, was "cancelled after the recount requester was informed of the very high startup and daily costs for the recount by the San Francisco Elections Office."

Maa spent approximately $250,000 of his own money in his own attempt to confirm the results of Prop 29. Most citizens who wish to challenge election results are confirm them, do not have that kind of extra cash lying around.

Tom Courbat, the Election Integrity advocate --- and, incidentally, a 25-year veteran fiscal manager in three different CA counties --- helped lead the Prop 37 count and was outraged by the attempted charges in Fresno where, he said, "democracy...is only available to high-rollers."

In the recent Modesto Bee report, Madueño's attorney Amber Maltbie echoed Courbat: "Stanislaus County is not a place where ordinary folks will be asking for a recount."

"Citizens need 'cost containment' of recount costs to ensure every citizen, regardless of his/her economic status, can exercise the basic democratic right to a recount," Courbat told us for the Prop 37 story. "It is the last line of defense in maintaining the democratic operations of our republic."

Unfortunately, Madueño has now learned that lesson as well in Stanislaus County. Her attorney says the variable rates --- particularly the ability to "blindside" candidates later --- "will have a chilling effect" on those citizens attempting to confirm the results of their own elections.

Carlson quotes Dennis McCord, who lost a local city council race by eight votes last November as saying he received "conflicting estimates" when inquiring about a post-election count. He was finally told it would cost $12,500 to count the 5,100 votes in his race.

"It doesn't make sense that they don't know what it cost to recount 5,100 votes," he told Carlson in the Bee. "I would say $12,500 is a lot of money for a city council race. That kind of money could do a lot of good in the community."

Indeed we noted in our initial report that just one week of counting would have cost the Prop 37 proponents "$38,000 by the end of the first week, $58,000 by the end of the second week and $78,000 by the end of week three," according to Courbat, the former county Finance Director turned Election Integrity advocate.

Courbat was recently in Sacramento working with a number of other advocates to find a sponsor in the state legislature who might propose a bill to standardize "recount" costs in the state, or, at the very least, require that County Registrars post costs for post-election counts on their websites before elections. He has yet to find a sponsor for such a bill.

For her part, CA Sec. of State Debra Bowen --- once regarded as a champion of Election Integrity --- has remained disturbingly silent. While her office offered cursory response to our initial inquiries while working on the Prop 37 story, they stopped replying all together when we quoted chapter and verse from state Election Code and state Requirements as to how Fresno's Registrar Orth seemed to be blatantly ignoring both in her charges for a hand-count.

Bowen's office did not reply to our invitation to appear on our KPFK/Pacifica Radio show to discuss the matter either, though both Courbat and Maa appeared to discuss it. That February 7th interview can be heard here.

How much longer the mess in CA will continue to block citizens from being able to oversee and authenticate their own election results before either the Sec. of State or the Assembly steps in to do something about it is anybody's guess.

But, as we noted when we originally reported this story, this issue makes the notion that "we can count paper ballots later, if needed" absolutely absurd. If paper ballots are not publicly hand-counted by actual humans, as per "Democracy's Gold Standard" on Election Night, there is a very good chance that they will never be counted --- by anyone.

Even in California --- where the recount laws are far more liberal than most of the rest of the country, in a state where any voter may exercise the right of requesting a hand-count, so long as they are willing to foot the actual costs for it --- thanks to a lack of pricing standards, lack of enforcement of the few standards that do exist, and the ability of any Registrar to virtually name any price they like, actual costs be damned, elections here, as in the rest of the country, as noted in February, "are still an exercise in faith and trust in secret vote tallies and the officials who run them" which "hardly seems the way to run the 'world's greatest democracy'".

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