Recounts Provide Reassurance, Rarely Reversal
Recounts have been all over the news—and our inboxes—this November. Georgia conducted a statewide recount as part of a risk limiting audit, and the Peach State is already doing another at President Trump’s request. Another statewide recount may still be on the table in Wisconsin. In 2018, Florida faced three.
Despite their prevalence in recent memory, statewide recounts are rare. A report from FairVote, a nonpartisan reform-minded organization, found that 31 of the 5,778 statewide elections conducted between 2000 and 2019 resulted in a recount. According to the group, “Only three of those 31 recounts overturned the outcome of the race. In all three, the original margin of victory was less than 0.05%.” In other words, reversals aren’t common either, but they can happen—especially when margins are tight.
In which races did those reversals happen?
- The 2004 Washington state governor’s race was first called for Republican Dino Rossi. The recount shifted the margin by 390 votes and was ultimately decided for Democrat Christine Gregoire.
- The 2006 Vermont state auditor’s race was first called for Republican incumbent Randy Brock. The recount shifted the margin by 239 votes, and the race was decided in favor of Democrat Thomas Salmon.
- The 2009 Minnesota U.S. Senate race was first called for Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. The recount and subsequent legal challenges hinged on voter intent (see the November issue of The Canvass), and the final margin shifted by 440 votes to ultimately decide the race for Democrat Al Franken.
In these three races, recounts caught errors and helped right wrongs. In the Vermont state auditor’s race, for example, the recount revealed that in a few locations hand-counted ballots had been systematically attributed to the wrong candidate. This ballot-reading error wouldn’t have been uncovered without the recount’s scrutiny.
The 28 other statewide recounts didn’t change the outcome—but they did increase confidence in democracy and reassure candidates and voters that our elections systems produced an accurate count of legally cast votes.
Recounts can sometimes be a headache, though. Jennifer Morrell—a partner at The Elections Group and consultant with Democracy Fund—recalls having to conduct both a risk-limiting audit and a recount separately for the same race. Most postelection audits, she says, “are designed to escalate to a full recount, if necessary.” So doing both as separate processes may duplicate work in an already stressed postelection moment.
Recounts can also delay the final outcome of an election. In the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, the slim victory for Al Franken wasn’t finalized until Jan. 5, 2009, 62 days after the election.
Recounts can cost a lot too—in a 2010 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts researchers found that Minnesota’s 2008 U.S. Senate recount cost approximately $460,000, and Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial recount cost an estimated $1,160,000. As the report notes, the majority of those costs went to labor—after all, recounting votes takes time and people. Counties had to foot the bill for each of these automatic recounts, though both states reimbursed a portion of their costs.
If you’ve been reading The Canvass for awhile, you’re probably tired of hearing us say that every state is different. But it’s true. Recount processes vary by state, some are triggered automatically, while others must be requested, and a handful of states don’t offer recounts at all. Read on for an overview and a compilation of recent enactments on recounts. Or visit our newly updated Election Recounts webpage for comprehensive data on all 50 states.
Who Can Request a Recount?
Forty-one states and the District of Columbia permit a losing candidate, a voter, a group of voters or other concerned parties to petition for a recount. Those that do not are Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, New York (this will change on January 1, 2021), South Carolina and Tennessee—though five of these (Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii and South Carolina) do have automatic recount provisions.
In the 39 states, a candidate can request a recount. In 12 of these, the results must be within a specified margin for a candidate to make that request: Delaware, Georgia, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.
Six states also allow political parties to request recounts, and eight allow voters to do so.
In a few states, the vote totals for the top two candidates must be within a specified margin in order for the losing candidate to be able to request a recount. For example, in Georgia a losing candidate may petition for a recount when results are within 0.5% of total votes cast for the office. This can prevent candidates asking for recounts based on political motives—such as when Jill Stein requested recounts in Wisconsin and Michigan after the 2016 presidential election. She had garnered just above 1% of the votes in each state and had no chance of winning.
In three states—Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee—a recount may only be conducted by court order. And in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, recounts must be requested via a petition signed by a specified number of registered voters.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia provide for automatic recounts when the margin between the top two candidates falls within certain parameters. That number will increase to 22 in 2021 when a new law takes effect in New York.
In Alaska, South Dakota and Texas, automatic recounts only occur in the case of a tie. In the other 18 states, automatic recounts are triggered by margins ranging from 0.1% to 1% of the total votes cast.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections recommends that all states provide for automatic recounts. The lower the trigger point, the fewer automatic recounts a state will need to run. Because vote-counting machines are highly accurate, the Task Force advises a recount threshold of 0.25% of total ballots cast. Since the only three outcome reversals from recounts occurred when the margin of victory was 0.05%, a margin set too high might waste resources more than anything else.
A handful of states have made changes to their recount laws in recent years.
In 2019, Hawaii established an automatic recount if the margin of victory is equal to or less than one hundred votes or 0.25% of the votes cast, whichever is greater.
In 2018, Michigan passed two bills related to recounts, both designed to dissuade politically motivated recount requests like presidential candidate Jill Stein’s in 2016. The first doubles the per-precinct deposit fee for recount petitioners from $125 to $250, and the second limits eligibility to request a recount to those who, but for the fraud or mistake, would have had a reasonable chance of winning the election.
In 2017, Nevada passed a law ensuring that all recounts include a count and inspection of all ballots—the previous law allowed an initial recount of 5% of precincts, which would escalate to a full recount if a discrepancy of at least 1% was found.
In 2016, Wisconsin adjusted the guidelines under which a requester might receive a free recount—lowering it from 0.5% to 0.25% of the votes cast.
Recounts are having a moment in the spotlight, so there’s no time like the present to review your state’s laws on our Election Recounts webpage.
In fact, “2021 would be a perfect year,” says Morrell, “for legislators to convene experts to really think about what to do in terms of postelection audits and recounts.”
NCSL’s Election Recounts webpage
FairVote, A Survey and Analysis of Statewide Election Recounts, 2000-2019 (2020)
National Association of Secretaries of State, State Election Canvassing Timeframes and Recount Thresholds (2020)
Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, Recount Principles and Best Practices (2014)
Pew Charitable Trusts, The Cost of Statewide Recounts (2010)