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By Justin Lin

The rules governing recounts rarely generate mass attention—unless a major recount is underway.

Former California Assembly Speaker John Perez has called for a recount in the primary for controller.Such is the case now, with the primary election for controller of California generating a buzz. California, which uses a top-two primary system to decide which candidates will appear on the general election ballot, is going through a recount to determine who will appear on the November ballot along with primary winner, Republican Ashley Swearengin. Former California Assembly Speaker John Perez, who finished third with a 481-vote difference, or less than 0.1 percent of the votes cast, behind Betty Yee, is seeking the recount.

Other notable statewide recounts in the past few years include the Franken-Coleman U.S. senate race in 2008 (Minnesota), the Herring-Obenshain attorney general race in 2013 (Virginia), and the Gregoire-Rossi gubernatorial election in 2004 (Washington).

The controversy in California lies with the fact that recounts can be quite expensive and, per California law, the candidates pick up the tab. The notable elections of Franken-Coleman and Gregoire-Rossi, for example, cost $1.16 million and $460,000, respectively, according to an issue brief by Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Cost of Statewide Recounts.” Fortunately, statewide recounts aren’t common. The report says there were 25 between 1980 and 2010.

In the current California case, the more counties that Perez chooses to recount, the more it will cost his campaign.  Partly as a result of this, Perez has chosen 15 out of 58 counties to recount in this election.

Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have laws that trigger automatic election recounts when races are within certain margins. On the strict side, Alaska, South Dakota and Texas conduct an automatic recount only when the vote is tied. The District of Columbia does so when the top two vote getters are within 1 percent of each other. In all these cases, costs are paid by the state. Other states may reimburse the candidate who requested a recount for their expenditures if the recount alters the result of the election.

The Center for Election Integrity-Minnesota has a database of recount laws across the nation. NCSL maintains a webpage that lists the automatic recount states and the triggering thresholds.

Justin Lin an intern in NCSL's Elections Program. 

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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