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Silicon Valley House Seat Race Gets a Recount

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a row of empty voting booths with the word "vote" and an illustration of the American flag
Voting booths at Hermosa Beach City Hall during the California primary election. Recent efforts by Bay Area high school students to lower the voting age for school board elections have been popular with voters, but implementing them has proven a lengthy and difficult process. (Daniel Sofer/hermosawave.net)

View the full episode transcript.

Ballots are being recounted in the race for California’s 16th Congressional house seat, which ended in a tie for second between Assemblymember Evan Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. One or both of them will move on to face former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in November.

KQED’s Guy Marzorati explains how the recount is working, and why it’s gotten a little ugly.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Election workers are recounting ballots in Silicon Valley after the race for California’s 16th congressional district seat ended. In a mind blowing tie, Assembly member Evan Lo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian both got second place, after each winning exactly 30,249 votes.

Guy Marzorati: It took just such a insane confluence of events to even end up here. I mean, all the candidates have talked about, like, people coming up to them. I’m really sorry, I have to admit. Like, I didn’t cast a ballot like you. Could have been the difference today.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: KQED politics and government correspondent Guy Marzorati explains how the recount is going and why it’s gotten a little ugly.

Guy Marzorati:  So this is a district that stretches from Pacifica down through San Mateo County into Santa Clara County, Palo Alto, Mountain View, parts of San Jose all the way to Los Gatos. It’s been represented for about 30 years by Anna Eshoo. She decided last year she’s not going to run for another term. And so this opened up this really wild primary that’s gotten even more interesting recently.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Right. And can you just remind us to who are the players in this election?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah. So there was a lot of players in the primary. You could have made a football team out of it. There’s 11 candidates, running, but three ones who were the front runners, kind of from the beginning. And that was former mayor of San Jose, Sam Liccardo. Evan Lowe, a state assembly member, and Joe Simitian, who’s currently a Santa Clara County supervisor.

Guy Marzorati: Those three, I guess we’re kind of the favorites going in, but there’s a lot of money spent more than $5 million by campaigns in the primary there, as millions more by outside groups just trying to get, you know, candidates names out there. But ultimately those were the, you know, top three finishers in the primary.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Remind us of this very crazy, unlikely. Everything that happened in terms of the results of this race, there were actually two runner ups who were basically caught up in a tie. Like, what are even the odds of that happening?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, I’m I’m not a math person, but this you would need one of those massive calculators where they’re like front of it kind of ramps up at the end to figure this out. Basically. Yeah. Liccardo won the primary. He got a little bit more than 38,000 votes. And then Lo and Simeon each ended with 30,249 votes.

Guy Marzorati: I mean, it’s just like the chances of that happening and the vote counts were coming in all through the month of March. People were, you know, following it. They would go back and forth. One person would lead the next day, then it would switch. But that’s where they ended up. And what that means is both Simitian and Lo advance of the general election.

Guy Marzorati: I know we have a top two primary, but the rules and the top two primaries, if there is a tie for a second, all three candidates, would advance for a general election, which is just incredibly rare. That only happened one time in the state history since we switched to a top two primary, and in this case, the first time where you’d have three Democrats on the ballot in the general election.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So this tie that we’re talking about between Evan Lo and Joe Simitian did that, then automatically trigger a recount.

Guy Marzorati: Now, that’s what’s crazy is there is no automatic recount. In this race, that is the law for some local races, like in Santa Clara County and a local race, if it’s within 25 votes, it doesn’t even have to be tied though automatically to a recount. But in this case, there is no automatic recount.

Guy Marzorati: This is a federal race that stretches across two different counties, and it’s up to a voter to actually come forward and start the recount process. So in this case, you know, once the vote was certified in early April, there was a five day window where any voter could come forward and request a recount as long as they can pay for the recount themselves, then the recount can go forward.

Guy Marzorati: The first place we were looking was would the campaigns be interested in doing this? But both Evan Lowe and Joe Simeon were like, you know what? We’re good. Like, let’s just run it back in in November and see what happens. But then someone did come forward. Jonathan Padilla, who requested a recount in both of the counties and got this process started.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How then, does a recount work? Exactly?

Guy Marzorati: What literally what’s happening is the ballots are being run back through the machine with the extra added element of PDA has requested to view a lot of election materials and ballots that were not counted the first time around.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what are those ballots you’re referring to? Ballots that weren’t counted.

Guy Marzorati: Yeah. So this can, you know, range a lot of different ways, but how it’s actually played out so far in this recount is ballots relating to conditional voters. So if you’re someone who shows up to vote but is not registered even up to Election Day in California, you can just register on the spot and cast a, conditional on a provisional ballot.

Guy Marzorati: How that works is you fill out your information, you attest to the fact that you’re a citizen, that you’re 18 years old, that you’re not voting elsewhere, and then the registrar will go and double check all that information and ultimately count your ballot or not. In this case on the form, there was a box that needed to be checked. Just declare I’m a US citizen.

Guy Marzorati: There was also a signature field to say I’m a citizen, I’m 18, etc. in many of these ballots that are being challenged, the voters signed it but did not check that box and so the registrar did not count their ballots. We don’t know which way the voters voted in this race, but the registrar didn’t even go through the process of actually counting that vote. And so Padilla and his lawyers are challenging that.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And this is just a very, very small number of ballots. Right. But when we’re talking about a tie, they maybe matter a lot. Right.

Guy Marzorati: Only takes one. I mean, I think that’s definitely something to drive home in this case. In any election you’re going to look at, there might be a handful of votes that are kind of judgment calls. Maybe it’s a voter marked a certain choice, cross it out and marked another one. In this case, election workers literally review those. Those ballots go on like dual screens and two election workers view them and kind of make their determination.

Guy Marzorati: But those are kind of judgment calls trying to figure out, okay, what is this voter’s intent. And so in this case, you have, at least in Santa Clara County, about two dozen ballots that have been challenged. You have about a dozen more in San Mateo County, but that’s in the grand scheme of thousands and thousands of votes. So it’s not as if we’re finding a whole different result. But as you say, it only takes one vote to actually change what we’re all watching in this race.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, we’ll talk about who requested the recount and why. Some folks in the South Bay are suspicious of him. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Okay, so anyone can initiate a recount as long as you basically have the money to to fund it. But in this case, it’s even more interesting, in part because of who requested it and what we know of his background. Tell me a little bit more about who exactly this guy is, Jonathan Padilla.

Guy Marzorati: Yeah. So here’s where things I think pivot from, like schoolhouse Rock to something a little more spicy. Jonathan Padilla actually used to work for Sam Liccardo. He was the finance director when Liccardo ran for mayor of San Jose in 2014. He contributed to Lakatos campaign last year. He told me like, that’s the last contact he’s had with the campaign from then D.A., someone who stayed politically involved.

Guy Marzorati: Even though he’s a tech entrepreneur, he doesn’t necessarily work in politics, is his day job. He’s been involved in politics. So when it was discovered this is the guy who is requesting the recount. That’s when questions started. Why is he doing this? Is there some advantage that he is looking for for Liccardo by requesting this recount?

Guy Marzorati: Perhaps he wants a field to be narrowed to just two candidates. So that’s when the questions started to come in. And like, you know, what’s the political motivation behind going ahead with this process? You’ve heard a lot of critiques from Evan Lo’s campaign. They’ve even called him like a lackey for Sam Liccardo. They’re basically like, you’re doing Sam Liccardo bidding in this.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah. Well, what do we know about that? Why is he spending money to do this?

Guy Marzorati: This is what I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks. Padilla came out and said, you know, I just want to have all the votes counted.

Jonathan Padilla: My positions have been super clear. We should count every single vote.

Guy Marzorati: I’ve been DMing with him like trying to get more information. Finally, earlier this week, he agreed to to chat on the phone, and he’s kind of stuck by this story that he is not doing this in any kind of coordination with Liccardo.

Jonathan Padilla: This is about counting all the ballots. I have not spoken Mercado about this. I have not spoken anybody campaign about this. I had no meaningful contact with anybody in Liccardo campaign since I made my donation at the end of December.

Guy Marzorati: He said, you know, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I’m really just interested in making sure that all the votes are counted. And something he talked about was he didn’t want any candidate to win the seat with like a plurality of votes. I mean, you could end up in a scenario with three candidates. Maybe someone gets, you know, in the high 30s and they can still win the seat.

Guy Marzorati: This is a really important seat. There’s no term limits. You can have this for decades. So it’s almost like, should it really be up to less than a majority of voters to make this decision? That’s his story. I mean, he is very involved in politics. It’s hard to believe there’s no political inklings or no kind of political motivations at all in here.

Guy Marzorati: But that’s what Padilla said. He said he’s not getting anything out of this personally other than, you know, supporting democracy. And the Carlos campaign has said, we have nothing to do with this. We you know, we’re completely not involved. We’re happy to see the votes get counted. But we’re not involved with this.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How much is this costing Jonathan Padilla?

Guy Marzorati: It’s not just Padilla. There’s this whole outside organization called Count the Vote.

Jonathan Padilla: And we’re a concern group of citizens that are acting with every intent to follow, every FEC guideline and law.

Guy Marzorati: It could be well over $200,000 when all is said and done, because the amount each county is charging is $12,000 a day. And literally, like I’ve seen the checks, they have to write a $12,000 check each day and give it to the registrar. And then that’s how the work goes forward for that day with a recount. Like you have to see it all the way through. If at any point they start making the payments, then the whole recount stops.

Guy Marzorati: And even if there were votes that were changed, none of it counts. There have been calls, you know, from Anna. Sue currently holds the seat. She wants them to release their donors. Who’s actually funding the recount? There have been a complaint filed with federal election regulators by a group of lawyers in Santa Clara County who have said, Sam Liccardo is really behind this.

Guy Marzorati: This needs to be investigated what kind of coordination he has with this recount group. So there have been a lot of critiques hurled that Padilla’s way. And until we get more of the information about donations, what we know now is Padilla is someone who has supported Liccardo in the past, but there’s no smoking gun, you know, between the Liccardo campaign and Padilla.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So you have Padilla and Liccardo basically saying, we’re not in this together, and you have Evan Lowe saying, yeah, you are. Where’s Joe Simitian and all this?

Guy Marzorati: You know, Joe Simitian has not gone into the fray in this kind of back and forth.

Joe Simitian: Eventually the process will work itself out.

Guy Marzorati: He’s kind of said, I want to see this play out. And it’s actually kind of been a good look for him. I would have to say, you know, in this race where you have this mudslinging back and forth, when I’ve asked him his reaction to all these developments, he said, look, I just want to thank the election workers and we’ll see how this process plays out.

Joe Simitian: I’ll just politics at this point. And, my job is to stay focused on how I can best represent the folks in our district. That’s really my reaction.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What do you make of the rhetoric here in this debate over the recount guy between all the candidates involved? And it just seems very heated, like, why does it matter to the average voter what arguments these people are slinging around?

Guy Marzorati: I think there’s definitely room for self-reflection on a lot of sides, in kind of how the rhetoric has escalated since this recount started. You had Evan Lowe’s campaign when the recount was announced, accused PDA of taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, attacking democracy, subverting the will of voters. I mean, ultimately, we’re counting ballots like the will of the voters will either be confirmed or newly illuminated.

Guy Marzorati: And then you also had Padilla, who said, you know, the fact that there was ballots challenge. He called it a travesty. He said the ballots were discovered. He said there was special interest influencing, you know, the election work going on in San Mateo County. Even when I asked him, like what specifically you’re talking about? He didn’t really have an answer. So I’m not trying to be the language police here, but like just taking a step back.

Guy Marzorati: These are all Democrats. I know all these folks were appalled by, you know, former President Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election, appalled by ideas like fake, fake electors. And I think if every bit of election gamesmanship becomes Trumpian, if it becomes undermining democracy, then it all might just be noise to voters when someone is actually trying to threaten democracy.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what’s next here, guy? What’s the timeline for this? When can we know the new results?

Guy Marzorati: By the end of this week. Santa Clara County election officials are confident they can wrap this up. Adjudicate all those, you know, challenge ballots, finish running everything through the machine and have a result. It might be even sooner in San Mateo County just because it’s there’s fewer votes there. So I think, you know, by the end of this week, we could know who’s actually going to the general election.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, as a politics reporter, I’m curious what big questions you’re left with from this situation. I mean, one thing I’m thinking about is that not any average person maybe has $200,000 lying around if they want a recount. Yeah.

Guy Marzorati: And that’s, you know, what Padilla has actually been. That’s one of the things he’s been talking about a lot is like, why should it come to this that I have to put together this money to make the recount happen? At the local level, there are automatic recount laws. And so I wonder if this is, you know, going to kind of spur a conversation about maybe having a state law that triggers an automatic recount at some point.

Guy Marzorati: I mean, like I said, there’s in any election, there’s going to be votes where you have kind of a 5050, you know, should this vote be counted, what’s the voters intent? But in the grand scheme of things, they don’t really matter. But if you have a race like this where it’s tied, maybe that’s the impetus that could lead to some changes. Could lead to a state mandatory recount law.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Guy, thank you so much as always.

Guy Marzorati: My pleasure.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Guy Marzorati, politics and government correspondent for KQED. This 26 minute conversation with Guy was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Ellie Prickett-Morgan is our intern.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: They scored this episode and added up the tape. Music courtesy of First Come Music Audio Network and Universal Production Music. The Bay is a production of listener supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, thanks so much for listening. Peace.

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