With so many congressional elections resulting in narrow margins between the Democratic and Republican candidates, supporters from the unsuccessful candidates have raised the possibility of a recount in some of the tightest races.

Losing an election can be difficult for supporters who were deeply emotionally invested in their preferred candidates. In these instances, recounts seem like a last glimmer of hope to eke out a victory. But recounts are unlikely to happen, and even if they do occur, they are unlikely to change the outcome of the race.

The rules around recounts vary greatly by state in terms of when a recount can occur, what circumstances must precede recounts and who can initiate them. Some states will only conduct an automatic recount in the event of a tie. In other states, the margin between the top two candidates must be within a certain percentage. The largest difference provided under these rules is 1 percent, with some states employing stricter cutoffs at one-quarter or one-half of a percent. In 41 states, a recount can be requested, often at the candidate’s expense, but again the margin must be close enough to justify a recount or there must be an obvious error that a recount would remedy.

Recounts historically do not change the outcome of the race. Of the thousands of elections that have taken place in recent decades, there have been 31 statewide recounts and the outcome only changed in three instances. In all three instances, the margin was razor thin—only a couple hundred votes. The average shift in the vote count was around 400. This is undoubtedly a good thing—it means our election officials are accurately counting votes the first time.

Consider the case of Wisconsin where the media declared Ron Johnson the unofficial winner on Wednesday afternoon. He defeated Mandela Barnes by 1 percentage point—a difference of over 20,000 votes. There is no automatic recount in Wisconsin so Barnes would have to request one, and since the margin is greater than 0.25 percentage points, Barnes would have to pay for it—a rule put in place to disincentivize frivolous requests. Barnes would only be refunded if the outcome changed. Given the current difference and the average number of votes changed in past recounts, Barnes would be foolish to request a recount.

A similar dynamic exists in Arizona’s gubernatorial contest. Arizona does have automatic recounts, but only if the margin is 0.5 percent or less. With a substantial number of votes still to be counted in Arizona, it looks like the margin between Kari Lake and Katie Hobbs is likely to fall below the threshold, triggering a recount. However, even a 0.2 percentage point difference still amounts to over 5,000 votes. This means a recount is unlikely to change the initial outcome.

There are some close House races as well. These geographically smaller areas make for much smaller vote totals, where a 100-vote swing could potentially alter the outcome. Looking at the 2020 election cycle, an open-seat race in Iowa saw the Republican ahead by only 47 votes before the recount. Even at such a small margin, she was still declared the winner by six votes. A similar dynamic could play out in Colorado’s third district as the controversial incumbent Lauren Boebert finds herself in an unexpectedly close race. An automatic recount will likely take place, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the leader maintains their lead after the votes are re-tabulated, regardless of how narrow the margin is.

Ensuring that losing candidates and their supporters acknowledge their opponents’ victory is an integral part of our democracy and the transfer of power. Recounts are an important mechanism to ensure a fair and accurate count, and candidates are entitled to pursue one or wait until their results are final before officially bowing out of the race. However, no one should be surprised if their favorite candidate chooses not to pursue a recount, nor should they be surprised when a recount fails to change the outcome of an election. 

Image credit: richjem

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