As relieved as most are that John Pérez didn't drag the state through a drawn-out recount, the former Assembly speaker deserved a full review of primary election balloting in the race for state controller.

After finishing just 481 votes behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee for the second-place spot, which would have qualified him for the November general election, Pérez wanted to make sure the count was accurate. After all, the margin represented only about 1/100th of 1 percent of the ballots cast in the race.

Pérez initiated the recount on July 6 but halted it 12 days later after the ballots from two counties were tallied again. By then, he had drawn widespread scorn for cherry-picking counties to recheck where he thought he could gain votes, and for launching a process that could have taken months, possibly delaying ballot preparation for the general election, or worse.

Don't blame Pérez. The problem wasn't that he set the process in motion, it was -- and remains -- the process itself. Despite witnessing the infamous Bush v. Gore recount debacle in Florida 14 years ago, California secretaries of state and lawmakers haven't fixed this state's ridiculous system.

Here, any registered voter can ask for a recount but must pay the cost. That benefits the wealthy and discriminates against candidates who might deserve a recount but lack the funds.

In an apparent attempt to ameliorate the sticker shock, the law allows candidates to dip their toes in the statistical waters to find out if a full recount is worth the expense. Candidates can start with a county of their choosing and just pay for that recount. If they like the results, they can pick another. It can be a sequential process from county to county rather than a simultaneous one.


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Pérez was merely following those rules. The law made it more financially prudent for him to go one or two counties at a time and to pick those where he thought he had the best chance of gaining votes.

At the root of this silliness, of course, was the requirement that Pérez pay the recount cost. That makes no sense. Candidates don't have to pay for the original counting of ballots, and they shouldn't have to cover the cost to ensure election officials got it right.

Put another way, there's a price for democracy and we should collectively share it. Statewide recounts should be financed by the state.

Indeed, to preserve confidence in our electoral system, we should ensure that all our election outcomes are accurate. Election officials should conduct random samplings of the ballots in every race. Thanks to the laws of statistics, this can usually be done relatively inexpensively.

The closer the contest, the more ballots must be checked. For example, explains professor Philip Stark, chairman of the statistics department at UC Berkeley, take the California vote in the last presidential election.

Assume Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had actually finished much closer, say 2 percentage points apart. In that case, it's virtually certain that randomly checking no more than 1 percent of the 13 million ballots statewide would ensure, with 99 percent confidence, that Obama won.

If the margin had been 0.5 percent, checking a sample of not more than 10 percent of the ballots would almost surely have been enough.

At a certain point, when the races get very close, it's no longer cost-effective to randomly select ballots; it's easier to simply recount them all. That, Stark says, was the case with the state controller's race.

When the margin is as close as that separating Yee and Pérez, the expense of a full recount is justified and tallying should automatically be done. Eighteen other states require publicly funded, automatic recounts for very close races.

Ironically, we currently require county registrars to hand-check the results in 1 percent of the precincts. But that's the wrong test. It doesn't tell us whether the election results overall are right. That's what we should be checking.

That's what would protect the integrity of our elections. That's what Pérez deserved.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/borensteindan.