Payment Due: Las Cruces Invoices Candidates for Recount Costs

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[Image via nmpolitics.net]

Recounts are often exciting for political junkies and the media – but they can be difficult for election offices already stretched thin. More importantly, they can generate costs that aren’t necessarily covered in the appropriate budget. As a result, jurisdictions often seek reimbursement for their time and expenses in carrying out a recount – especially if it is unsuccessful in changing the result. The City of Las Cruces, NM is the latest to address this issue, as the Las Cruces Sun-News reports:

City of Las Cruces officials said they’re requiring two candidates who sought a recount to pay nearly $5,400 to cover their costs — an amount due Thursday…

The city issued a news release Wednesday with a breakdown of the $5,368.08 in costs incurred in the Nov. 18 recount, saying Eli Guzman in the District 1 city council race and Richard Hall in the District 4 race are both fully liable for the the bill.

“The amount includes $250 in site costs that also served as a security bond, which was paid prior to the recount,” the news release states.

Other categories are poll workers ($3,550); mileage ($68.08) and a voting machine programming fee ($1,500), according to the city.

But for now neither candidate has made payment:

Las Cruces spokesman Udell Vigil said the candidates as of Wednesday hadn’t paid the bill.

“The city clerk’s office notified the candidates of the amount owed on Nov. 19,” he said. “The candidates were given 14 calendar days from that date to make payment.”

Asked whether 14 calendar days is a time frame outlined in a state law, Vigil said it isn’t.

“State statute does not specify a timetable for payment,” he said. “The 14-day schedule was arrived at after conferring with the city attorney’s office.”

Hall said he’s objecting to the costs, but said the exact reasons will be outlined in a letter to the city Thursday.

“Any thinking person would say to themselves: ‘This is unreasonable,'” he said of the amount. “We’re giving them a written response.”

Guzman said he is evaluating the bill.

“We are looking at it and making sure it is correct. I am willing to pay as long as it is fair and correct.”

One issue that may come up in the candidates’ review of the invoice is the way in which ballots were re-tallied:

Guzman and Hall requested a recount of early and absentee ballots and those cast at a portion of election-day voting convenience centers — Henry Benavidez Center, Jornada Elementary School, Thomas Branigan Memorial Library and the Doña Ana County Government Center. City officials said for recount purposes, early voting and absentee ballots were treated as two separate sites.

The recount of the Nov. 3 election didn’t yield any changes to the vote totals, meaning Kasandra Gandara remained the winner in District 1 and Jack Eakman remained the winner in District 4. Gandara won her race by 18 votes. Eakman won by 11 votes.

Interestingly enough, the local statute that supports the invoice maps to a state statute that was challenged and then changed because of the difficulty in predicting costs:

A county clerk’s office official has said the municipal statute regarding election recounts is akin to one that was revised for county elections because it was deemed unfair by the state Supreme Court because it identifies costs that are difficult to calculate upfront.

Here’s an excerpt from that linked article:

[A] wild card enters the picture with respect to a segment of the municipal election law that details the types of costs for which a candidate would be liable, said Doña Ana County Deputy Clerk Scott Krahling. A state Supreme Court decision from 2006 deemed a comparable section of the state’s general election code — which guides county and state elections — unfair because the law identifies costs, such as personnel time, for which a candidate seeking a recount would be liable for that are difficult to calculate upfront, Krahling said.

While the Legislature took steps in response to the Supreme Court decision to change the state and county general election laws, Krahling said the municipal election segment remained unchanged. He said that gives reason to question whether the municipal laws, too, would be deemed unfair.

“It’s the exact same language that was in the municipal code that was in the general election code,” he said.

Krahling said state lawmakers resolved the issue in the general election statute by allowing for a state board to set a specific rate each year for a recount. Other ambiguity about how to carry out a recount was dealt with, as well.

“We really know how to do a recount really effectively if it’s in the general election,” he said.

I’ll be watching to see if either of the two candidates is willing to go to court to avoid their share of the bill – and if so, what that means for the statute allowing Las Cruces to seek reimbursement. Either way, the City has incurred costs and is understandably anxious to get paid. Whether (and if so, how soon) that happens is still undetermined.

Stay tuned.

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