Understanding the Election Recount


As you have surely heard by now, Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised a shit ton of money (about $7 million) to recount election votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The Clinton campaign recently got on board, too, and plans to participate in the process. This effort feels…confusing, right? It elicits an potent mixture of hope and fear.

I set out to research how this works and what it could actually mean in terms of election outcome. If you, too, need help cutting through the noise, here are five things I learned worth knowing:

1. According to federal law, a recount must occur within 35 days of the presidential election.

This year’s deadline is December 13th. The Electors of the Electoral College, who cast their final votes for the presidency (and vice-presidency) based on state outcomes, do so 41 days after the election, on December 19th.

As USA Today explained: “In modern practice, the Electoral College is mostly a formality. Most electors are loyal members of the party that has selected them, and in 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., electors are bound by laws or party pledges to vote in accord with the popular vote. Although an elector could, in principle, change his or her vote (and a few actually have over the years), doing so is rare.” One Republican elector is already publicly vowing that he will not vote for Trump.

2. Stein is pushing the recount under allegations of “cyber hacking.”

But she lacks sufficient evidence to make her accusations plausible. As explains, “There is no direct evidence of voter fraud, hacking or a stolen election.” According to The Washington Post, even IF these allegations had merit, a recount would likely not uncover hacking of any sort.

3. Rules for recounts vary state-by-state.

They’re generally instituted when the top two candidates in an election are separated by an incredibly slim margin of votes. In the 2000 election matchup, the small margin of Bush’s 1,247 voting lead against Al Gore mandated a recount under Florida state law. A 2008 recount in Minnesota lead to Al Franken being elected to the senate, so recounts aren’t always fruitless.

Just to add further complexity (you’re welcome!), voting rules and regulations can also vary by county. As The LA Times reports, “All 50 states have their own processes for conducting elections for presidential electors, and their own rules for certifying, auditing and potentially recounting results. And some states allow counties and municipalities leeway to act independently of one another, on issues such as voting equipment, for instance.”

4. The three states in question (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan) have different policies around who can request recounts.

Wisconsin allows any candidate to request a recount if they’ve lost by less than 0.25% (here’s a manual explaining how the process works; warning, it’s a PDF!). In this case though the Stein fund will foot the estimated $1.1 million bill, since Stein was the requestor of the recount. According to Politico, the recount would have been free if Trump’s margin of victory was just a little smaller (less than 0.5%).

The process is more cumbersome in Pennsylvania. As Stein writes on her website, she “need[s] to find at least three voters in each election district willing to submit an affidavit to their county board of elections requesting a recount.” There are more than 9,000 voting precincts in PA. As Vox explains, “She either has to provide firm evidence of election fraud — which she doesn’t have — or present three notarized affidavits from each of Pennsylvania’s 9,163 precincts, the deadline for which has reportedly passed in many counties.” Stein’s taking volunteers on her site.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, the state’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit in the attempt to shut down a recount because a recount, “poses an expensive and risky threat to hard-working taxpayers and abuses the intent of Michigan law.” Michigan bills $125 for every precinct when the margins total more than half a percentage point. With a total of 6,300 precincts, the cost of a recount in Michigan is about $787,000.

As the Independent reports, broken voting machines are already throwing a wrench into the recount in Michigan. “Faulty machines mean half of all votes cast in the city of Detroit may be ineligible for recount,” they explain. “A third of voting precincts in Wayne County, that largest of Michigan’s counties, could also be disqualified.” Election officials say that the machines were jammed with paper ballots.

5. The chances of this changing the election outcome are slim.

Trump won the election with 306 Electoral College votes; Clinton trailed with 232. Candidates need 270 votes to win. Clinton lost Michigan by 10,704 votes, Wisconsin by 27, 257 votes and Pennsylvania by 70,638.

Given the amount of electoral votes up for grabs in the three battleground states where Stein is pushing for a recount — Wisconsin at 10; Pennsylvania at 20; and Michigan at 16 — the results of all three states would need to be reversed for Clinton to win. The chances of this happening? Slim. Michigan “well exceeds the largest margin ever in a recount.”


Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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