San Jose spotlight: Judge orders full signature recount for San Jose ballot measure

by Nadia Lopez
May 11, 2020

Labor leaders announced the revival of a contentious union-backed initiative to shift mayoral elections to presidential years Monday, after a judge ruled in favor of a full recount of nearly 100,000 signatures to determine if it qualifies for the Nov. 2020 ballot.

The order was issued on Friday, just weeks after Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey sued the city over dozens of mistakes she admitted making during the signature counting process, calling for the judge to reverse her initial decision and allow for the recount.

“The court holds the Registrar is permitted, and indeed obligated, to accurately ascertain the number of valid signatures…including by correcting errors and issuing a new, corrected certification,” the legal document said.

The mistakes Bushey and her office committed, according to legal documents, included the “failure to locate voter records,” failing to check the voter log for the “appropriate time frame,” assigning a signature to the wrong voter and “erroneously” reviewing and reading voter records.

“In some instances the Registrar and her staff did not locate a voter record because their database search returned numerous hits and they did not attempt to locate the record in the results; in other instances, the record simply was not located despite seeming efforts to narrow it down,” the lawsuit said.

The Registrar estimates the recount would take approximately 1,142 days to conduct, but the judge ordered the recount be completed within 45 days. To meet that June 23 deadline, county officials said they need at least 25 employees working ten hour shifts — costing a whopping $1 million.

The pricey $1 million reversal now falls on the city’s shoulders, at a time when city leaders face a bleak economic forecast in the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The court has considered and rejects (San Jose City Clerk Toni) Taber’s request that the county pay for a portion of the staffing costs required to conduct a full recount,” the lawsuit said.

San Jose officials could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

The decision is a win for labor leaders who say the measure — dubbed the Fair Elections Initiative — will put a cap on money in politics and encourage higher voter turnout. But the fight isn’t over, as proponents of the initiative claim Taber lost more than 3,000 signatures — even before county officials admitted to making errors.

“Toni Taber has some explaining to do,” said Ben Field, executive director of the South Bay Labor Council. “The disappearance of the signatures of 3,000 voters on her watch makes it much less likely that our measure will qualify for the ballot. If the measure does not get on the ballot because of those missing signatures, it’s an affront to democracy.”

Now, they’re demanding Taber provide the signatures. If she can’t, they said the City Council should vote to place the measure on the ballot.

But the council already voted on the measure last year, rejecting placing it on the ballot in a split 6-5 vote, favoring Mayor Sam Liccardo and his business-friendly coalition who opposed it.

If Taber can’t come up with the signatures, the council refuses to put it on the ballot or the signature recount shows it failed to meet the 95 percent threshold, Field said labor leaders won’t have “any other alternative” but to take legal action against the city.

“Unless the city can find those 3,000 missing signatures, the only remedy is for the San Jose City Council to put the Fair Elections Initiative on the ballot,” he added. “If the City Council won’t do the right thing…then the community coalition won’t have any other alternative but to take the city to court for the loss of the signatures.”

In order to qualify for the November ballot, the measure’s backers needed to collect at least 65,573 valid signatures. Labor leaders reported submitting about 97,000 total signatures to Taber, but the county said it had only received 94,202 from Taber. In a random sample, the Registrar of Voters reviewed 2,826 signatures from the pool of names and concluded 1,183 were invalid — falling short of the required 95 percent benchmark required by state election law to qualify for the ballot.

The ordeal has infuriated labor and business leaders alike, where the region’s top business lobby, the Silicon Valley Organization, which opposes the measure, went so far to claim a legal stake in the case. The ballot’s proponents say it will remove special interest money from elections by prohibiting certain donations from lobbyists, but business leaders argue the ballot initiative doesn’t hold the labor community to the same standard.

While the judge denied the SVO’s involvement, the business lobby’s legal argument was granted “amici curiae” status, which means the information still stands up in court and can be used in the case.

The SVO could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.