In the sixth grade, I ran for president of our class of 29 kids against a girl named Rosemary. On gender politics alone, I should have won.

We had 15 boys and 14 girls. Out of misplaced chivalry, I thought it wrong to vote for myself. I voted for Rosemary, thinking she'd vote for me.

Rosemary suffered from no such compunctions. She voted for herself, and won, 15-14. I can still hear her laughing.

Though it would have changed nothing, I've often thought I should have demanded a recount. The imbroglio at my school has helped me fathom the current fight in the California controller's race.

I know: People's eyes glaze over at the word "controller." So know this: The controller has big influence over the state's finances. Among other duties, the controller sits on the board of Calpers, the public pension fund.

More critically, the job has been a stepping stone to higher office. Gray Davis was controller before he became governor. Steve Westly was controller when he ran for governor.

Race for second

You may know the current story: Out of 4 million votes cast, Democrat John Perez finished 481 votes behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee for second place in the controller's race.


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The winner will have the right to run in November against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican. Because California is heavily Democratic, either Perez or Yee has a good chance of winning the office.

Here is where it gets strange. California's election laws do not demand an automatic statewide recount when the tally is this close.

Instead, a candidate willing to foot the bill can choose the counties in which the recount takes place. Perez, no surprise, has selected counties with heavier Hispanic voting, beginning with Kern and Imperial.

Inevitably, this launches an arms race governed by money: If Perez, who has a comfortable war chest supported by labor, should change the tally, Yee has the right to respond. Presumably, she would pick more Asian districts.

Because there is no deadline on this insanity, it can continue well past the time that ballots have to be mailed out to military voters overseas.

Money counts

I tried to figure out the origins of this system -- and while much of it is lost in the mists of election law, this much is clear: It has to do with money.

"We have county-administered elections," says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "By convention, the state doesn't pay any of the direct costs to conduct elections.''

Some people have suggested that there should be an automatic statewide recount when the vote is as close as it was in this case. Even though it would cost $3 million, it's preferable to the arms race.

But in a state as large and diverse as California, there will probably never be an exact vote count. Just comparing signatures on mail-in ballots is a subjective exercise.

That speaks strongly to Perez accepting the results, maybe after a preliminary review. I can tell you from my sixth-grade experience that life goes on ever after the closest and most galling defeat.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Twitter.com/scottherhold.