Election workers look through boxes of ballots at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters during a recount effort
The Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee voted unanimously on a resolution demanding the identities of donors behind an unknown super PAC that paid for the Congressional District 16 recount be disclosed. File photo.

The Santa Clara County Democratic Party has joined retiring Congresswoman Anna Eshoo in demanding transparency behind a controversial recount in the race for her seat.

The party’s Central Committee on Thursday voted unanimously for a resolution demanding the identities of donors behind a shadowy super PAC paying for the Congressional District 16 recount. The recount cost more than $400,000 and finished earlier this week. The final tally picked up five additional votes for Assemblymember Evan Low over Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, breaking a tie that threatened to pit the frontrunner, former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, against both candidates in the November runoff.

“Someone might say on social media that anyone can request a recount for any reason — that’s the way the law is set up. Well, turns out you can do that if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to go around,” Santa Clara County Democratic Party Chair Bill James said at the meeting. “The question is, who are these interests? I think we have a right to know.”

Liccardo faces a federal election complaint alleging his campaign coordinated a dark money effort to fund the recount, knock one of the candidates out, and help his prospects in November. Jonathan Padilla, a tech entrepreneur and former Liccardo mayoral campaign staffer, requested the recount and has paid for it through a super PAC called Count the Vote, founded by people also linked to Liccardo. He has denied any coordination.

Count the Vote lists James Sutton of Rutan & Tucker, LLP as its treasurer. Another attorney from the firm, Matthew Alvarez, serves as treasurer for “Neighbors for Results,” a separate PAC supporting Liccardo. Padilla, who worked on Liccardo’s mayoral campaign, had authorized Sutton to act on his behalf.

Padilla initially claimed he requested the recount on behalf of Low, which Low’s campaign rebuked. Padilla told San José Spotlight Count the Vote is following “every aspect of federal law” and called Thursday’s Democratic Party action “ironic.”

“The county party has to look itself in the mirror. They have a long history of not following the intent of local election laws and how they utilize the United Democratic Campaign account,” he told San José Spotlight. “The real travesty is the county Democratic Party not calling out Evan Low for trying to stop the recount.”

The Mercury News reported that after Padilla changed his request for a manual recount to a machine recount, Low’s attorneys sent a letter to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters saying it affected the recount request deadline and therefore couldn’t move forward.

“A dark money super PAC funding the recount is a shady trick that we haven’t seen before,” Clay Volino, a spokesperson for Low’s campaign, told San José Spotlight. “Representative Eshoo said it best: ‘Without full transparency, a dark shadow is cast across the landscape of this all-important election. The voters deserve to know who and how much, and should not have to wait for a mid-July report.’ What are they trying to hide?”

Count the Vote isn’t required to disclose its donors until July 15, the deadline for quarterly campaign contribution reports. The Democratic Party’s resolution accuses the super PAC’s donors of “hiding behind legal deadlines.”

“I don’t think it’s enough to say that eventually, the donors will be disclosed, because we have a right to know right now,” James said.

Liccardo’s campaign responded to the party’s resolution by criticizing Low.

“Sam supports federal legislation that requires the 24-hour disclosure of donors to independent expenditures which would apply to recounts, and would have informed voters of the $500,000 that PG&E and the CA Apartment Association of landlords spent on behalf of Evan Low in the March primary,” campaign spokesperson Gil Rubinstein told San José Spotlight.

This news outlet previously reported that the electric company and landlord group both supported Low’s campaign through a super PAC called the “Golden State Leadership Fund.” According to filings with the Federal Election Commission since January 2023, the PAC spent $399,000 in support of Low.

James said the lack of an automatic recount provision in state law — in the event of a tie like what happened in Congressional District 16 — opens the door for dark money.

“If we’re going to have a system where a recount is privately requested, then the information behind who’s paying for it should be available to everyone in the public — then the public can make a decision,” James told San José Spotlight. “And in this case, it wasn’t.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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