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Ask Civics 101: How Do Recounts Work?

Sara Plourde/NHPR

Today’s Ask Civics 101 question: How do recounts work? 

Read on, or listen to this short episode for the answer.

Do you have a question for the team? Click here to submit it.

Today we answer a question from listener Tyler DiCarlo. He asks, “How do recounts work?"

A recount may be undertaken if there are concerns about human error or fraud, and some states have laws about close elections automatically triggering recounts. Recounts can happen in local, state, federal, and even presidential elections. 

Recounts can be triggered automatically or requested by candidates.  

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As with almost all things election related in our United States, different states have different rules for their recounts. Only 43 states allow recounts. 

In twenty states, if the race is close a recount is mandatory. For example, in Alabama a tenth of one percent margin triggers a recount.  That’s a razor-thin margin. 

In some states candidates can request a recount no  matter how large the margin is. In others it has to be within a certain range. And in others, voters can request a recount.

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There's one big hurdle with recounts - they are pricey. Election staffers have to retabulate the votes either by hand, machine, or electronically. It can be extremely time consuming to go back through every ballot. 

The cost of an automatic  recount is paid for by the state. Often a candidate is under some pressure to accept the first set of results and decline the automatic recount so that taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill.

In a case where a recount is requested by a candidate, the bill for the recount goes to the candidate, which means that candidate  would have to think there's a good chance he or she won to want to shell out that much money. 

Most states have a setup in which officials from each party are able to watch the recount to ensure nothing fishy happens. 

Recounts can drag on. From days to even months. Perhaps the most famous recount was the presidential election recount of 2000, when some the votes in Florida were recounted, and others, famously, were not.

The nation was on pins and needles for weeks while it waited for a result in 2o00, a time which felt to many like a slow-motion heart attack. In the end, after the Supreme Court stepped in, it came down to just 537 votes out of 6 million cast. The original called winner - George W. Bush - was still the winner. 

That’s the big thing with recounts, they rarely actually change the results of a race. Just .064% of races that are recounted actually get reversed.

And in many races the losing candidate doesn’t want to appear to be a sore loser and will forgo the recount altogether. 

If you have any questions, send them our way! We’re here for you.



Jacqui Fulton is, in her own words, "podcast and public radio’s biggest fan.” She even built a recording studio in her closet.
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