Vote count tight, messy in California attorney general race

File: Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley (L) and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris (R)
File: Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley (L) and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris (R)
Kevork Djansezian & Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Charges and counter-charges are flying in the still-too-close-to-call race for California attorney general. Since Election Day, the lead has swung back and forth between Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. As of early Wednesday morning, Harris maintained an edge of nearly 30,000 votes, with more than half a million still uncounted. Things have gotten a little tense at the Registrar of Voters’ Office in Norwalk.

To Harris spokesman Brian Brokaw, its clear that Cooley’s observers at the Registrar’s Office are trying to disenfranchise Democratic voters.

“They’re trying to get as many provisional ballots not counted as possible," says Brokaw.

Provisional ballots are the ones pollworkers issue on Election Day to a range of people, from those who showed up at the wrong precinct to those who didn’t receive their mail-in ballots. There tend to be more Democratic than Republican provisionals, and Harris is the Democrat.

Brokaw says Cooley’s people are challenging those ballots in big numbers. Cooley spokesman Kevin Spillane says that’s not so.

“We’re simply observing the process as are they," says Spillane, "and we’re exercising our rights to try to do what we can to prevent any voter fraud.”

Because it’s so large, Los Angeles County is ground zero in the count. Some Republican groups have sounded an emergency call for volunteers to help Cooley’s campaign watch the process. The Young Republicans Federation of California sent an e-mail titled “Stop Union Thugs from Stealing Your Vote.”

Elections officials say it’s true that Cooley’s campaign has added observers since they started tallying more provisionals last week. It’s also true that provisional ballots tend to have more problems that mail-ins – often they’re damaged or there’s a problem with addresses or signature verification.

Registrar spokesman Efrain Escobedo says the office has systems in place to handle that.

“If there is a question with regard to a signature in terms of there’s not an absolutely identical match to the registration form," says Escobedo, "we have instituted a number of additional checks to make further determinations and give the opportunity to give it that second or third look.”

Escobedo says that while Cooley’s representatives have asked them to review some ballots, they have issued no formal challenge to any. He says the office hasn’t disenfranchised any voters.

But the rhetoric between the two camps has ratcheted up in recent days. Harris spokesman Brokaw says Cooley’s people are crowding ballot counters.

“Physically standing over the registrar's staff – sometimes two, three, four people – over each person," says Brokaw.

Cooley spokesman Spillane denies that. He adds that the registrar’s sometimes treated Harris representatives better – and cracked down on Cooley observers.

“For example, we had one staffer who was reprimanded because her desk touched the desk of an election worker," says Spillane.

Registrar spokesman Escobedo says the office is treating each side fairly and is addressing concerns that observers are getting too close to the more than 200 elections workers involved in the process. He says no one has interfered with that process so far.

“We are very sensitive to that, and are continually communicating with our staff and have not had staff who say they are not able to do their job.”

Escobedo says L.A. County elections officials intend to keep it that way in the closest statewide election in decades – aware that the results may surface at long last in the Registrar of Voters Office in Norwalk.