By Anthony York | 07/15/10 12:00 AM PST

Recount. The very word now conjures up decade-old images of a carnival-like scene in the county seats of Florida, where we all learned new terms like “hanging chads,” “overvotes” and “Kathleen Harris.”

Alas, those days are over, but elections officials in Riverside and San Diego counties are girding for their own journey into uncharted electoral waters this week. That’s because Assemblywoman Mary Salas, D-Chula Vista, asked for a recount in the two counties of the 40th Senate District where she did better than her Democratic opponent, Juan Vargas.

This is the same Juan Vargas who now clings to a 22-vote lead out of more than 48,000 Democratic ballots cast in SD 40.

Let the record show that the 22-vote margin is the pre-recount tally. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

What we know is that people will be watching. Vargas was backed with more than $2 million worth of independent expenditure money, much of it coming from insurers and other business groups. Even a few union dollars found their way into the pro-Vargas mix, and the Chamber of Commerce-led independent campaign was run by Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufman.

On the other side was a collection of more liberal legislators and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Senate staff used vacation hours to work phones for Salas and Steinberg celebrated Salas’s apparent victory in an internal memo to members of his caucus last month.

It’s not that a Vargas victory is a direct threat to Steinberg’s leadership, but a Vargas win would simply underscore an undeniable fact about next year’s Senate. The Democratic caucus is going to be more moderate, and there will be more Democratic senators with their own financial resources who will make the challenge of leading that caucus a more challenging one for Steinberg.

Now, that isn’t exactly the same stakes as the Florida recount of a decade ago, but it’s enough to get the attention of Capitol denizens, who are monitoring the overtime action in SD 40.

San Diego elections chief Deborah Seiler says her workers are getting ready to look at the ballots again. Under the rules of an electoral recount, Salas has the right to request the order in which electoral precincts are tallied. She has asked San Diego officials to begin by counting the Coronado precincts, then move on to Chula Vista and then Imperial Beach. These three areas make up the epicenter of Salas’ support. If Salas is not making up ground in those precincts, she can stop the recount at any time and concede defeat to Vargas.
Salas has the right to request such things because, hey, she’s paying for it. California law has no automatic recall provision. If any voter in the district wants a recount, they have to pay for it themselves. Or at least have the special interests who support them agree to foot the bill. Siler estimates the work in San Diego alone will cost $23,000-$26,000.

State law allows counties a week to prepare for the recount. Seiler says San Diego is taking that time to make logistical preparations, and trying to anticipate any contingencies before the recounting of ballots begins. Part of the problem, she says, is that about two-thirds of the 33,000 ballots that were cast in the county are not separated by precinct. Those ballots will have to be combed through and sorted before the counting begins.

Once the counting begins, elections officials will keep a running tally on their website, which Siler expects to be updated around 5:30 p.m. once new tallies become available. When a precinct is counted, website viewers will be able to see the old result alongside the new one, and chart Salas’ incremental progress or regression, precinct by precinct, day by day.
Seiler said the tally should take about five or six days. The counting begins Monday.

Earlier in the week, Vargas finally declared victory, more than a month after Election Day had come and gone. “It’s been a long road, but we’ve reached the finish line,” Vargas said in a statement released Saturday night.

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