Posted on November 29, 2016
The ability to handle a recount of votes to ensure fair, accurate and genuinely democratic outcomes is widely recognized as a critical component of election administration. Trust in elections requires trust in the recount process and ongoing vigilance in lessons to be learned about how best to do recounts and how to determine what victory margins and post-elections audit results should trigger a recount.
FairVote's September 2016 report by Rob Richie and Haley Smith is an update to past recount reports examining statewide election recount outcomes and practices in the United States. Using data from the decade and a half of elections taking place between 2000 and 2015, we determine how often recounts occur, how often they change outcomes, how much vote totals change and how these figures vary with the size of the electorate. We conclude that:
- Statewide recounts are rare: Out of the 4,687 statewide general elections in the 2000 to 2015 decade, there were 27 statewide recounts, 15 of which were deemed "consequential" (with an original victory margin no more than 0.15 percent). In other words, there was one recount for every 173 statewide elections and one consequential recount for every 312 statewide elections. This pattern was true of most subcategories of statewide elections as well, including only three consequential recounts out of the 808 elections in this period for the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer.
- Outcome reversals are even rarer: Over the 2000-2015 period, recounts resulted in three reversals out of 15 consequential recounts, or one out of every 1562 statewide elections. These reversals took place in the races for U.S. Senate in 2008 in Minnesota, auditor in 2006 in Vermont and governor in 2004 in Washington.
- Margin shifts in recounts are small: Statewide recounts resulted in an average margin swing of 282 votes between the frontrunners, representing 0.0191% of the statewide vote in those elections. The median average shift was 219 votes, with 22 of the 27 recounts changing the victory margin by fewer than 500 votes.
- Margin shifts are smaller and recounts rarer in larger electorates: Recounts in elections with more voters altered the vote margin by lower percentages than recounts in elections with fewer voters. In the seven cases in which the total votes cast were above two million, the margin shift was on average 0.016% of the vote. In the eight cases in which the total votes cast were fewer than one million, the margin shift was on average 0.039%. No recounts took place in our three largest states.
- Most states should revise their laws governing statewide recounts: Model state laws should establish clear post-election audit procedures and define a reasonable victory margin percentage for automatic, taxpayer-financed recounts.
Following are links to:
A Survey and Analysis of Statewide Election Recounts, 2000-2015 (PDF)
2015 Spreadsheet (Excel) with all the report's data, including a comprehensive review of all statewide elections and data from the 27 elections with recounts.
- 2015 Spreadsheet (Excel) with all the report's data, including a comprehensive review of all statewide elections and data from the 27 elections with recounts.
A Survey and Analysis of Statewide Election Recounts, 2000-2009 (PDF)
- 2009 Spreadsheet (Excel) with all of the report's data, including a comprehensive review of all statewide elections and data from the 18 elections with recounts