The Virginia Senate race between incumbent Mark Warner (D) and Ed Gillespie (R) could become Virginia’s third statewide recount in the past ten years. However, if a recount occurs, it will have the same outcome as the previous two – it will not change who wins. According to FairVote’s research of all statewide recounts occurring from 2000-2009 and updated review of recounts from 2010-2012, full statewide recounts are rarely necessary, as the average change in victory margin is less than 0.03%. Based on the original tally in the Virginia Senate race, the margin between the two candidates is about 0.79%.
Despite this large margin, current Virginia recount laws does allow a candidate to apply for a recount if the difference between the apparent winning candidate (Warner) and the apparent defeated candidate (Gillespie) falls within one percent or less of the total vote cast for those two candidates. In this case, the margin of difference in votes between those two candidates is less than one percent. If Gillespie does request a recount, he will be required to pay $10 per precinct. If the recount alters the election outcome in his favor, then he is would be refunded the money. There are 2,557 precincts in Virginia – which would require Gillespie to pay $25,570 to recount all precincts in the state.
There are three key problems with Virginia’s recount laws that can be changed.
First, FairVote recommends that Virginia fund risk-limiting audits that can catch potential fraud or technological error in any race before the outcome is final. The number of ballots to review should increase as the victory margin decreases.
Second, states should create a sensible minimum threshold for triggering an automatic, state-financed recount in statewide elections. The victory margin should be no larger than the greater of 0.15% or 2,000 votes. Our research shows that any larger margin is highly unlikely to change outcomes. Candidates could still request a recount in elections with larger margins, but be willing to pay for it unless the recounts changes the outcome. The end result is that recounts that should happen will be paid for by the taxpayers.
Third, candidates and voters should be allowed to petition and pay to accelerate the initial vote counting in order to allow time for a recount prior to any deadlines. The amount would be based on a state or counties public estimates of acceleration costs.
The need for better recount laws in Virginia has come to light again in this election. Without the recommended changes, recounts will most often be an expensive and lengthy process unlikely to result in a new outcome.