California has a history of cliffhanger elections – but there has never been a statewide recount.
Experts say the cost – state law requires losing candidates to foot the bill – has dissuaded even candidates who lost by the narrowest of margins.
A review of state election records shows there have been plenty of occasions in the Golden State when a recount might well have flipped an election. In one election, a recount in California might have changed American history. That was in 1876, during the tightest presidential election the country has ever seen.
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But 20 electoral votes from three states were in dispute, and the election was finally referred to a congressional commission, which named Hayes president.
If a recount had flipped the results in California, the Golden State’s six electoral votes would have made Tilden president.
The closest governor’s race in state history was in 1982, when Attorney General George Deukmejian, a Republican, beat Tom Bradley, Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, by 1.19 percent, or 93,345 votes.
Bradley had led in virtually all the polls, and the usually accurate Field Poll declared him the winner on election night based on exit polling. But when the votes were actually counted, Deukmejian won.
Bradley would have been California’s first African American governor. Pollsters, confounded by their errors, blamed a “Bradley effect,” saying that some white voters had lied to pollsters, falsely claiming they supported the African American candidate.
Tony Quinn, state legislative historian and a former Deukmejian administration official, notes another dynamic.
“The Republican for the first time had run an absentee campaign,” he says. “Their executive director said, ‘Let's send everybody an application.’”
The GOP carried the absentees by about 140,000 votes, he recalls. And absentee voters weren’t interviewed in Field’s exit polls.
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Two California Senate races qualify as squeakers: In 1986, Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston beat Republican challenger Ed Zschau by 1.42 percent, or 104,868 votes. In 1994, Democrat Dianne Feinstein edged Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, (then the husband of the future queen of political bloggers, Arianna Huffington), by 1.9 percent, or 162,127 votes. In both races, the combined total of third-party candidates exceeded the winner’s victory margin.
In the 1990 attorney general’s race, San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith, a Democrat, led former Republican Rep. Dan Lungren by more than 28,000 votes – but that number included only votes cast on Election Day. The race turned as additional absentee ballots were tallied, and in the end Lungren won by 28,906 votes, an extraordinarily tight margin of 0.39 percent. Smith considered a recount, then let the result stand.
In 1988, Gov. Deukmejian put a $1 billion transportation bond measure on the June ballot. It lost by 355 votes out of more than 5.2 million cast, a tiny margin of .006 percent. Deukmejian considered a recount, but didn't pursue it. In covering that story, The Los Angeles Times noted that a 1908 state initiative regarding compensation for state officials had passed by only two votes.
California presidential contests have been unusually tight. Here, from Dave Leip’s online atlas are California’s closest presidential races. The candidate who was elected president is in boldface:
1912 – Former President Teddy Roosevelt, R, by 174 votes, 0.03 percent, over Woodrow Wilson, D.
1892 – Grover Cleveland, D, by 147 votes, 0.05 percent, over President Benjamin Harrison, R.
1880 – Winfield Scott Hancock, D, by 144 votes, 0.09 percent, over James Garfield, R.
1916 – President Woodrow Wilson, D, by 3,773 votes, 0.38 percent, over Charles Evans Hughes, R.
1948 – President Harry Truman, D, by 17,865 votes, 0.44 percent, over Tom Dewey, R.
1868 – Ulysses S. Grant, R, by 530 votes, 0.48 percent, over Horatio Seymour, D.
1960 – Richard Nixon, R, by 35,623 votes, 0.55 percent, over John Kennedy, D.
1860 – Abraham Lincoln, R, by 734 votes, or 0.61 percent, over Stephen Douglas, D.
1896 – William McKinley, R, by 3,773 votes, 0.38 percent, over William Jennings Bryan, D.
1976 – President Gerald Ford, R, by 139,000 votes, 1.78 percent, over Jimmy Carter, D.