Recount 101: What’s Happening Now

November 5, 2020  • Aspen Digital

What is a recount & when does one happen?

A recount is when all or a portion of the ballots in a state or locality are counted and reviewed again. Some states automatically conduct a recount if the race is very close, and some allow recounts to be requested. Recounts can happen at all levels of an election—local, county, state, or federal—and are a routine, normal part of every election cycle. There’s no reason to see a recount underway as a sign of anything suspicious or evidence that there was underlying fraud or inaccuracies; recounts happen every year in close races.

Who can request a recount?

This varies by state. In many states a losing candidate can request a recount if the margin is narrow enough. In Pennsylvania, voters have to request the recount, and in Arizona only courts can request one. Depending on the state and the overall margin, the losing candidate might have to pay for the recount.

Does a recount mean something went wrong?

No. In many states they’re a built-in failsafe to double-check particularly close races. They happen every year, across the country, at the request of candidates from all parties. Recounts are proof that the system is working and that the results hold up to close scrutiny. In some cases they are requested if there is suspicion of error or fraudulent activity, but those suspicions are rarely validated during the recount.

Vote fraud of any kind in the United States is vanishingly scarce; in Washington State, which conducts elections entirely by vote-by-mail, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman says that in the 2018 midterm election officials uncovered 142 fraudulent voting attempts out of 3.2 million ballots—about .004 percent.

Can recounts change the projected winner?

According to election expert Ned Foley of Ohio State, statewide recounts almost never change the vote tally enough to change the winner, especially if there is a margin of more than 1,000 votes. A 2016 recount in Wisconsin requested by Jill Stein only shifted about 1,500 votes out of 3 million, and only increased Donald Trump’s existing lead by about 130 votes. In 2008, a recount in a senate race in Minnesota shifted enough votes for Al Franken to take the lead, but the margin had only been a few hundred votes. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, tweeted on Wednesday that a recent recount in a race for the Wisconsin supreme court resulted in a shift of just 300 votes.    

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