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Election Integrity Activist Calls for Prop 37 Recount

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A sign supporting Proposition 37 which calls for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is seen in front of a home in Glendale, California October, 19, 2012. (Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A sign supporting Proposition 37 which calls for the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is seen in front of a home in Glendale, California October, 19, 2012. (Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Another Bay Area citizen has called for a recount on a statewide ballot measure, this time on Prop 37, and she's being helped by the man responsible for the Prop 29 recount last summer.

Lori Grace, an election integrity activist based in Tiburon, Calif., filed a formal request with the Secretary of State's office on Monday for a recount in the contest over Prop 37, a voter initiative that would require special labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. (There won't be any other ballot measure recounts from the general election, since Monday was the last day to file).

Having two such recounts in one year is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. The earlier effort came after the June primary, when Bay Area surgeon John Maa requested a recount for Prop 29, the cigarette tax initiative that would have helped to fund cancer research.

Now Maa is imparting some of his own hard-earned (and expensive -- recounts in California must be bankrolled by the requester) knowledge to Grace. Both acknowledged that Maa has given her strategical advice on how to proceed.

Grace is no stranger to the electoral process, either. In an interview by phone late Tuesday, she said she has been actively involved in issues of elections integrity since at least 2004, when she helped with an audit of the presidential election. Her interest began after the Bush-Gore recount in Florida in 2000. She also heads an organization called the Institute for American Democracy and Election Integrity.

Grace said that at least one of her reasons for requesting the Prop 37 recount was the obvious one -- to see the election results overturned and Prop 37 pass. She is founder and director of the Sunrise Center, which advocates "green" and healthy lifestyles and has publicly supported Prop 37. But she also said that she and a small group of citizens are concerned "about election anomalies that can't be explained" in a few counties.

"We've done a certain amount of statistical analysis. It's just a question -- nothing's for sure," Grace said.

In an email, Maa provided a little more background:

"In the weeks during the canvass following the November election, the margin for Proposition 37 narrowed substantially, as over 3 million provisional, absentee, and damaged ballots were counted. Unusually high numbers of provisional ballots were noted in several counties, likely the result of the new online voter registration processes implemented before the November election. Supporters of Proposition 37 questioned whether the Associated Press called the election prematurely a victory for 'No on Prop 37' with such a large number of ballots remaining to be counted."

Grace has an uphill battle ahead, not least because of the way recounts work in California.

First, the financial burden falls to the requester. In the Prop 29 recount, Maa poured in roughly $250,000 of his own to keep the campaign going. Not many individual citizens have that kind of disposable income to spare, so without substantial fundraising or a coalition effort, a recount is out of reach for a lot of voters.

Second, strict rules turn any recount here into a head-scratching game of strategy. A person could conceivably call for a recount in all 58 counties from the outset, but that could easily cost millions of dollars. Instead, it becomes readily clear that the only cost-effective way to proceed is to pick out a handful of counties that are most likely to offer the biggest shift in the vote count.

If the final goal is truly to win Prop 37 outright, and not to unveil fraud or other irregularities in the November election, then the task may be even harder.

While the general election results will not be certified until Friday, the latest count shows Prop 37 losing by a margin of 3 percent. That makes it the most closely contested race of all the statewide ballot measures, but it still means the proposition trails by a daunting 378,584 votes. Elections officials across the state would have to find that a total of nearly 200,000 votes were miscounted in some way -- whether a "yes" was tallied a "no," a lot of "yes" votes were left out of the count improperly, or a lot of "no" votes should have been thrown out as invalid or fraudulent.

Grace is following Maa's lead by starting the recount in a county that they think is more likely to show signs of irregularities, based, she said, on their statistical evidence. In this case, that would be Orange County, which they also said happens to be one of the cheapest counties in which to conduct a recount, an idea even the county's elections chief seemed to acknowledge.

"I need to do a fee study. I'm hearing San Diego, Placer County, are a lot more expensive than we are. But they're putting a lot more overhead into their cost. I think that's why they're starting with us," said Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.

Fifty-eight counties, each with their own costs and potential vote payouts, lined up like squares on a checker board. Find enough votes, and the election can be reversed. But doing it at a minimum cost -- there's the rub. And even then, opponents of Prop 37, backed by major multinational food companies, can come back and call for another recount, bringing more counties into play.

All of which makes the other motive seem more compelling, even if it is a long shot.

Grace has been pushing for a more open, transparent method for counting votes in California.

She argued, for one, that there is a lack of transparency inherent to the machines used to tabulate votes in certain counties. Since elections are managed at the county level, wide variations exist in the approach to casting, collecting, and counting ballots. Some counties, such as Los Angeles, use paper punch cards. Others, like Orange County, use a form of electronic touch-screen machines. Activists have complained that some types of e-voting machines use proprietary software that is kept secret from the public.

Grace's institute for election integrity backs an alternate method for counting and verifying votes that relies on open-source software rather than something developed by a private company. That system is called the Trachtenberg Election Verification System (TEVS).

If they do find problems in the vote count, Grace said, then the "basic hope is to begin to show people here in the American public that we have a system that isn't really transparent, that could be possibly altered electronically, and there could be mistakes electronically."

Kelley, for his part, stands behind his team and their results.

"What I've seen is machine counting is precise," Kelley said. "It's just a pretty clean system. It's been tested over decades. First of all, I don't blame individuals for doing this. They want to check to make sure it's accurate. But this system has been tested."

The recount is set to begin in Orange County on Dec. 18 at a cost -- to the requester -- of about $600 a day. According to Kelley, that's the cost for a single board or table to handle the counting. For $2,500 a day, you get four tables. Having only one means this recount isn't going to move very fast.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Lori Grace was involved in the 2000 Bush-Gore recount in Florida. In fact, she said she was involved with an audit of the 2004 election results. The story has been corrected accordingly.

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