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Cooley-Harris War of Words Heats Up

LA District Attorney Steve Cooley
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LA District Attorney Steve Cooley
As prospect of a recount looms, attorney general candidates trade accusations of impropriety

In the two weeks since the Nov. 2 elections, the two candidates for state attorney general, Steve Cooley and Kamala D. Harris, have repeatedly swapped places — and razor-thin leads — as vote tallies trickled in from around the state.

They’re now trading something else: allegations of improper conduct by campaign workers and complaints over invalid ballots, as the tenor of this drawn-out race has taken a turn for the worse.

As of Monday afternoon, Harris, the Democrat, held a 31,000-vote lead over Cooley, with many provisional ballots still left to be counted in counties like Los Angeles.

The final result is not expected for several more weeks, when the deadline arrives for counties to certify their vote counts. But neither camp has wasted any time in ratcheting up their rhetoric, mobilizing volunteers and consulting lawyers — a prelude, potentially, to a recount and a messy legal battle, experts say.

“This is a somewhat common occurrence,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “When it’s very close people start lawyering up and look to get an advantage. You need to be able to credibly challenge enough votes that exceed the difference between you and the next candidate.”

The primary battleground has been voter-rich Los Angeles County, where the Cooley campaign began to complain last week that election workers were not verifying signatures on provisional ballots, the Los Angeles Times reported. The accusations led to public assurances from Los Angeles officials that there was nothing to worry about in the county’s vote-counting procedures. Cooley, at the time, was leading.

But Republicans were sufficiently troubled by the signatures issue that on Sunday the chairwoman of the Los Angeles Republican Party, Jane Barnett, sent an e-mail calling on supporters to volunteer, be it “all day or only a few hours,” to monitor how vote-counting officials were validating ballot signatures.

“The Cooley campaign has seen example after example where that just isn’t being done,” Barnett wrote to supporters. “We just need bodies to help make sure the folks at the Registrar’s aren’t just speeding through this process, errantly letting through what should be invalid ballots.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, quickly fired back that Cooley’s team was using the issue as a way to void legitimate votes for Harris and put pressure on elections officials, since the provisional ballots tended to lean blue.

“Steve Cooley’s campaign is attempting to disqualify as many provisional ballots as possible,” Ace Smith, a strategist for Harris, said over the weekend. “We call on the Cooley campaign to immediately cease any tactics designed to disenfranchise voters.”

Smith also claimed that Cooley supporters were crowding around vote counters and intimidating them.

Kamala Harris
Courtesy photo
Kamala Harris
Courtesy photo

The finger-pointing continued through Monday, when Kevin Spillane, a strategist for Cooley, in turn suggested that some vote counters were unduly influenced by Harris supporters.

According to Spillane, Harris’ team has been “sending in SEIU members” to “frequently, casually, inappropriately” hold private meetings with vote counters — many of whom also belong to the public-employee union — without informing monitors working for Cooley.

“When our staff have interacted with the elections workers, they were admonished,” Spillane said, “whereas [Harris supporters] have contact on a regular, friendly basis.”

Brian Brokaw, the Harris campaign manager, dismissed Spillane’s comments as “ridiculous” and called the meetings between his monitors and elections officials “open and public.”

“We needed to find out when the county would release its daily numbers, just like they do,” Brokaw said.

Both campaigns have continued to raise funds with the prospect of a recount looming, although neither would definitively say that they would ask for one. 

Smith, the Harris strategist, warned in a statement: “The last thing California needs is a reenactment of the embarrassing mob scene we witnessed in Florida during the 2000 presidential campaign.”

Spillane, the Cooley strategist, said similarly: “It is in the best interest of everybody for this process to be viewed as transparent, fair and free of controversy."

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