International election standards include, as part of free and fair elections, access to peaceful dispute mechanisms.1
Recounts check the accuracy of reported results. They do not require any specific anomalies, though questionable statistical results sometimes prompt candidates to request recounts.
A different dispute resolution method, called a contest or an appeal, addresses anomalies with litigation. Lawsuits may address irregularities like vote stuffing, vote suppression, provision of wrong ballots, and certain voting machine malfunctions better than recounts, because a discovery process accompanies litigation.
– Requesting a recount doesn’t require allegations of fraud. A recount simply verifies the count, a basic part of election accountability.
– Characterizing those who seek recounts as “sore losers” or “trying to discredit the system” is inappropriate. Recounts serve to validate the election process.
– A rerun is not the same thing as a recount. However, several states changed statutory definitions of recounts by substituting words calling retabulations “recounts.” A machine retabulation is not a valid way to authenticate results produced by a machine. A true recount compares voter-verified ballots against the machine result.
See also: When is a recount a sham? http://blackboxvoting.org/when-is-a-recount-a-sham
HOW RECOUNTS WORK
A recount can be automatic or requested by a candidate or voter.
An automatic recount can be triggered when results are close.
A candidate can request a recount, though in some states the candidate must meet a threshold in order to qualify.
Voters are the ultimate stakeholder in elections, and can request recounts in some (but not all) jurisdictions. Elections actually belong to the voters, not to candidates or the government. Whether or not voters are given legal standing to request a recount, they have moral standing and should at least be allowed to inspect ballots under right-to-know laws.
Recount deadlines are quite tight, and differ from contest (lawsuit) deadlines. A recount cannot be requested until the election is certified, and then usually must be requested almost immediately. Each jurisdiction varies on timing, who can file, and cost.
Some voting systems, like paperless DRE machines and Internet voting cannot be recounted and are not accountable to the public.
Statutory recounts, triggered by close races, do not cost the candidate anything.
Non-mandatory recounts usually involve paying a deposit when making the request. If the recount materially changes a result, the fee should be refunded.
Costs for recounts vary enormously, from reasonable and statutorily limited fees (Maine, Vermont) to unaccountable and outrageous fees (California, Wisconsin), which allow election officials to arbitrarily set fees.2
A method called “sort and stack” offers simple, fast, and easily verifiable hand recounts.
1. Place ballots on a table where all can see.
2. Sort ballots into one stack for each candidate.
3. Deal out ballots from each stack one by one while counting out loud.
WHY A RECOUNT CAN CHANGE THE RESULT
– Election officials sometimes write down the wrong number.
– Sometimes entire precincts, or certain voting machines, are found to be omitted from the count.
– Sometimes a set of votes has been put through twice the first time votes were counted.
– Write-in votes are sometimes incorrectly counted or not counted at all.
– Issues like folded absentee ballots can produce voting machine miscounts.3
Recounts may not catch incorrect results, when:
– Ballots were added, omitted, or altered;
– Eligible voters were prevented from voting;
– Voters were given the wrong ballots.4
CAN A RECOUNT DETECT FRAUD?
Perhaps, but not reliably. Recounts may detect a possibility of fraud, and may detect certain kinds of voting machine miscounts. If the reason for a change of count systematically benefits one candidate or subset of voters, it could be due to fraud. However, only law enforcement has the standing and resources to determine whether criminal intent can be established.
Election officials will typically point to either “human error” or “a software malfunction” to explain discrepancies, but in truth, the issue of intent can rarely be determined. It may be possible to ascertain that intentionality exists, with subpoena power and access to wiretaps and banking records, but this level of investigation is unusual after an election. Occasionally election fraud activities are detected in the course of other corruption investigations.
Some types of election fraud, such as absentee ballot stuffing, are more easily detected than others.
Recounts may detect central tabulator fraud or ballot scanner tampering, but because computerized voting fraud is most easily accomplished by persons with inside access, and the same people may have access to the ballots, they are more likely to use their access to adjust ballots so that they match the count than to allow themselves to be caught by offering up unadjusted recount ballots. For this reason, if doing a recount for the purpose of detecting voting machine tampering observers should focus concurrently, and intensively, on ballot chain of custody.
CHAIN OF CUSTODY IN RECOUNTS
A recount is only as good as its chain of custody, which helps ensure that all ballots, and only real and legitimate ballots are counted.
See also: About chain of custody – http://blackboxvoting.org/about-chain-of-custody
Any time ballots are transported from one place to another they are at risk for tampering. As ballots are brought out for recount, observers should note whether they are in correct containers, seals are intact, portions of the container can be opened other than the sealed area, whether number of ballots matches number of signed names on participating voter list, and whether ballot storage was documented with surveillance cameras.
ANOTHER FORM OF RECOUNT
Only an official recount can change official election results. However, using freedom of information laws, members of the public can conduct their own recounts.
Time limits are longer for public records inspections than for recounts.
Public records recounts cost less and can evaluate accuracy of the count in a more holistic way, looking at many candidates and also several different kinds of records.
See also: What constitutes an election audit? http://blackboxvoting.org/how-to-audit-an-election
Unofficial recounts can also use ballot images, which are pictures of ballots automatically created by voting machines when they record each ballot. Ballot images are countable either one by one, by human examination, or using open source public software such as that developed by Mitch Trachtenberg for the Humboldt County Transparency Project.
Ballot images can be compared with actual ballots, especially when pegged to the ballots with a unique identifying number.
See also: The Brakey Method: http://blackboxvoting.org/the-brakey-method
Use of right-to-know laws for ballot inspection has been blocked by some states.5
Despite obstructive actions by some elections officials, one of the most optimistic developments in election transparency is the new area of enabling citizen-initiated recounts, through release of ballot images combined with allowing ballot inpections under public right-to-know law.
- ACE Encyclopaedia: Election Integrity (Version1.0) – Fair Process; Transparency; Complaints and Appeals http://aceproject.org/main/english/ei/ei.htm ↩
- Stanislaus County, California set an example for exhorbitant recount fees by charging City of Riverbank mayoral candidate Virginia Madueño $2,000 an hour, more than five times the amount the county charged for its 2008 ‘Measure S’ recount.
See: Ken Carlson: Former Riverbank mayor contests bill for recount, Modesto Bee, 03/14/2013, (original link is now dead; was: http://www.modbee.com/2013/03/14/2622408/former-riverbank-mayor-contests.html ) Relevant excerpts:
“The Stanislaus County election office charged her campaign $10,217 for the Dec. 10 recount, or about $2,000 an hour. …
Sacramento attorney Amber Maltbie, representing Madueño, said the registrar of voters office gave them written statements that the recount would cost $300 an hour, with a $2,400 deposit required each day of the recount.
After the count was cut short the first day, Madueño’s campaign expected that part of the $2,400 deposit from Riverbank Councilwoman Dotty Nygard would be refunded. But they received a county invoice Jan. 25 stating the total cost was $10,217.28.
A $7,817 balance was owed, the letter said.
Maltbie said the figure was more than three times higher than the estimate given twice to Madueño’s campaign.
The cost for the Dec. 10 count was more than five times the amount for the Measure S recount in 2008, which cost $1,875, and likely sets a precedent for what candidates will be charged for recounts in Stanislaus County. …
“Three months after the recount, we are still trying to get to the bottom of it,” said Maltbie of Nossaman LLP. “If it’s permissible to be so incorrect with an initial estimate and the requester is blindsided later, people are not going to exercise their right to a recount. It will have a chilling effect.” …
Maltbie cited recounts in California that cost less, including a rerun of a Tulare County supervisor race costing $4,370 in 2010 and the city of Cathedral’s mayoral recount last year that was terminated after one day, costing $2,800. …
Cost accounting wasn’t so thorough for recounting Measure S, a countywide road tax that almost received two-thirds approval in 2008. The Yes on S Committee made a one-day deposit of $2,500 and stopped the hand count at midday after a check of certain precincts confirmed results, said Bill Bassitt, the committee’s treasurer.
The county charged $1,875 and refunded the rest.”
In another example, California citizen Dr. John Maa reported the following variation in recount costs for Prop 29:
•Orange County: .29 per ballot
•Placer County: .94 per ballot
•Los Angeles County: $2.24 per ballot
•Sacramento County: $3.86 per ballot
See: Brad Friedman: Arbitrary and Outrageous Costs for ‘Recounts’ of Paper Ballot Elections in California Continue to Stymie Citizen Authentication of Results, The BradBlog, 03/19/2013, http://www.bradblog.com/?p=9926
Another example: Fresno County Registrar of Voters effectively stopped a citizen-organized attempt to recount 2012 Prop 37 initiative results. While Orange County charged $600/day for hand-counting ballots, and Sierra County charged $500/day, Fresno set fees at $4,000/day in addition to a “start up” fee of $14,000
More: Brad Friedman: Forget About Fresno: How One CA County Clerk Stopped Prop 37’s Oversight ‘Recount’
And why secretly tallied paper ballots undermine U.S. democracy, BradBlog.com, 02/04/2013, http://www.bradblog.com/?p=9848 ↩
Voting machines have been documented misreading folded absentee ballots in Yakima County, Washington and in a 2006 Wyoming election. For more on that see:
Ballot problems: Folded ballots and voting machines, Black Box Voting, 11/08/2006, http://blackboxvoting.org/wy-folded-ballots-and-voting-machines ↩
- For example, in a Los Banos Calif. school board election, two incumbents were unseated by just a few votes while hundreds of voters had been given wrong ballots. This caused ineligible votes to be counted and some eligible voters to be unable to cast a vote. A recount does not shed any light on such a miscount.
Thaddeus Miller: Election certified despite errors, Los Banos Enterprise, 12/01/2012, http://www.losbanosenterprise.com/2012/12/01/194866/election-certified-despite-errors.html ↩
- For example, Wichita State University mathematician Beth Clarkson attempted to review paper tapes from voting machines in an effort to explain statistical anomalies favoring Republicans in certain jurisdictions.
More: Roxana Hegeman: WSU statistician sues seeking Kansas voting machine paper tapes, Associated Press, 04/01/2015, http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article17139890.html
In the above case, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach refused Clarkson’s request, arguing that Kansas law prohibits disclosure. Local officials claimed the request was “unnecessarily burdensome” and refused to comply.
More: Roxana Hegeman: Kansas seeks to block release of voting machine paper tapes, Associated Press, 08/26/2015, http://ksn.com/2015/08/24/kansas-seeks-to-block-release-of-voting-machine-paper-tapes/ ↩