The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Since the election, NCSL’s inbox has been filled with citizen inquiries on how election recounts work.

This Nov. 24, 2000 file photo shows Broward County canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg using a magnifying glass to examine a disputed ballot at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Twenty years ago, in a different time and under far different circumstances than today, it took five weeks of Florida recounts and court battles before Republican George W. Bush prevailed over Democrat Al Gore by 537 votes. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)If they’re asking, it’s likely our constituents—lawmakers and legislative staff—want to know more too. Check out our explainer, Election Recounts, or the brand new chart on state recount laws from Citizens for Election Integrity-Minnesota.

For context:

  • Statewide recounts are rare—although Florida faced three of them in 2018 (governor, senator and commission of agriculture). Georgia just announced it will conduct a hand recount of the tight presidential race. Hand recounts are rare, the most famous being the Florida recount in 2000 that decided the election for President George W. Bush, and one in Minnesota in 2008, that certified Democrat Al Franken’s 312-vote margin after eight months of legal wrangling.
  • Recounts rarely overturn a race. That’s because regular counting processes are, if not infallible, darned good.
  • Laws in some states automatically trigger a recount when the margin between the first and second place finishers is narrow enough, often between 0.25% and 1%.
  • Some states are clear that a ballot can be counted if the voter’s intent is discernible by a bipartisan team, and other states are equally clear that a ballot filled out with errors, such as using a checkmark instead of filling in an oval, can’t be counted.

While not the same as a recount, a postelection audit is another way that states can and do formalize a postelection review process. If election officials spot any irregularities in an audit, the state can always dig deeper. Note that some of these audits are about vote counting, and others are audits of procedures, to review that the state’s guidelines were in fact followed.

Recounts and audits are just two of the processes states can undertake after the voting is over.

In fact, NCSL has a new webpage, After the Voting Ends: The Steps to Complete an Election, providing the lowdown on laws and deadlines for canvassing and certifying election results, as well as voter intent laws. One key detail: Some states certify election results a week after an election; others take more than a month.

My point: If you’ve got questions about post-voting processes, there’s almost assuredly a law for that.

Wendy Underhill is director of elections and redistricting for NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

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.