The race for second place in the super-close California controller's contest got under way Friday in Kern County, the first of two places where John Perez started his controversial recount effort.
Nothing much had changed at the end of the day. Kern County had counted five precincts and found one discrepancy in one precinct and will retally those results, Deputy Registrar of Voters Karen Rhea said.
Kern's counting resumes Monday and could take two weeks.
Officials in Imperial County, the other site of the initial recounting, said they wouldn't release results until they're finished with the entire process. They said they couldn't estimate how long their recount will take.
Perez, former state Assembly speaker, called for a recount last weekend after sitting just 481 votes behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee in the certified tally of more than four million votes.
Since he's paying for it, Perez decides where to launch the effort and he picked 15 counties, beginning in Kern and Imperial. Perez hopes to find enough uncounted ballots and tally corrections to boost him into the November general election against Fresno Mayor and Republican Ashley Swearengin, who finished first in the June primary.
There's no deadline in the law for when the recount must be completed, but Perez may face a time crunch.
Even if the recount isn't finished, the Secretary of State's office will certify the official list of candidates on Aug. 28 -- based on the election results certified by counties, said spokeswoman Shannan Velayas.
What happens if the recount ends after Aug. 28 and a different person sits in second place then? Things could get really interesting.
"This is uncharted territory," Velayas said.
Kern County's Rhea was supposed to take vacation this past week. Instead she spent the week overseeing teams of workers prepare to start combing through the ballots cast in the June 3 primary Friday when campaign observers blew into town.
Rhea estimated the recount in Kern will take two weeks.
"I wanted to be done by (July) 25th," she said. "I don't know if we're going to hit it."
The process of counting must be done by hand and is tedious and time-consuming.
"We have a small staff and we have a lot of new staff," Rhea said. "We've never conducted a recount of this magnitude."
Perez has asked that only 389 of Kern County's 444 precincts be counted for now.
Rhea said her staffers have to dig through sealed ballot trays and find the first precinct on Perez's list, count it and then dig out the next one.
It takes four people to count each ballot -- not including the lawyers and observers who were watching the count.
"One person reads it. One person watches the vote being read. Two people tally independently," Rhea said.
It's an expensive process and, if time gets short, the cost could escalate if Rhea is required to pull in part-time staff to speed up the process.
"It's going to top $40,000 in Kern County," she said.
Perez's campaign, not the taxpayers, is required to foot the bill for the recount.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
Perez came in third in Kern County behind the two Republicans in the race, Swearengin and David Evans.
But he more than doubled the number of votes Yee collected here.
Perez also topped Yee in the 14 other counties he has targeted for a recount. Those are the counties where Perez thought he'd most likely pick up votes.
But Rhea said Kern County's tally is highly accurate and, practically, Perez is hunting for just a handful of votes.
If there are additional votes for Perez, she said, they would be found in blank ballots and overvotes -- two areas where a mistake by a voter can invalidate a ballot that is cast during an initial count but where a recount might make the vote count.
"You're hoping to find ballots that were not counted initially," Rhea said.
As an example, she said, a voter could have marked a ballot for Perez and then also written his name on the ballot.
Traditionally that would invalidate the vote.
But in a recount, the elections division tries to determine if the voter clearly intended to pick a single candidate.
If they do that, the vote could be ruled valid and counted.
Rhea said that, in Kern County, 153 overvotes were cast in the controller's race. But the majority of those are mail ballots that have already been reviewed by hand. In total, only 49 overvotes were cast on paper ballots at the polls.
A little bit of math indicates just how little a difference recounting those overvotes might make for Perez.
If his share of those votes matches the share he got in all of Kern's balloting, he would bring in nine new votes for himself.
But Yee, if she matches her Kern County performance, would pull in four votes. That would allow Perez to whittle five votes off of Yee's lead.
Perez's recall tactics have triggered accusations from Yee that he is trying to cherry-pick votes in an undemocratic attempt to skew the election results.
Parke Skelton, a campaign consultant for Yee, said cherry-picking is actually a charitable term for what Perez is doing.
"It's an outrageous process," he said.
The Yee campaign is observing the count, Skelton said, and if the momentum shifts to Perez, the Yee campaign will exercise its rights and start recounts in areas where she performed well.
The process is going to take a very long time, he said.
"A whole bunch of lawyers are going to be down there watching every vote with a magnifying glass," Skelton said. "My guess is that if we start pushing into August, this will end up in court."
Perez's campaign didn't return calls seeking comment Thursday and Friday. He told the Los Angeles Times that he simply couldn't afford to bankroll a recount in all 58 counties.
"If I could do the entire state and afford it, I would do it in a minute," he told the newspaper.
If, indeed, the results of the election begin to skew Perez's way as the recount rolls on from Kern and Imperial counties into San Bernardino, Fresno and San Mateo counties, Yee would be able to call for a recount in other counties.
"Anytime during a recount and, for 24 hours after it concludes, any voter can ask for any recount in any county," Velayas said.
The recount outcome is tallied daily, Rhea said, but a recount in any one county does not become official until all the precincts in that county have been recounted.
Velayas said the person requesting the recount, and paying for it, can decide daily whether to stop recounting in one county and move to another.
That could turn the next month and a half into a wild circus as Perez and Yee dart around the state hunting for votes. DAY 1 RECOUNT RESULTS IN KERN
John Perez: 449*
Ashley Swearengin: 209
David Evans: 151
Betty Yee: 90
Tammy Blair: 60
Laura Wells: 39
* In one precinct, Perez received 86 votes in the official results. In the recount, he received 85. Kern County will retally those ballots.
Source: Kern County Elections Division