Voices & Choices

Reconsidering the presidential recount system

Reconsidering the presidential recount system

Recount. For the past two decades, few words have hung over American politics as ominously as recount.

At the close of 2000, the country was transfixed by a handful of counties in Florida as they struggled to determine who would be the next president of the United States. As challenges worked their way through the courts, many Americans began to realize just how piecemeal and inconsistent the system for picking their leader is. The standards for counting ballots varied state-by-state and, in many instances, county-by-county. The election was decided only after the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Florida’s inconsistent standards for counting ballots, halted the recount.

Sixteen years later, it became clear that very little had changed when it came to presidential recounts. In the brutally-contested 2016 election, the margin between the candidates was razor thin in some of the most important swing states: it would have been reversed with a shift of 5,353 votes in Michigan, 11,375 votes in Wisconsin, and 22,147 voters in Pennsylvania, totalling less than 0.03 percent of all votes cast nationally. Attempts at pursuing recounts in those states revealed a recount system as patchwork and disorganized as the one that consumed the nation in 2000. Sixteen years, four presidential elections, and one Supreme Court case later and almost nothing had changed.

Drawing on a deep well of data from past FairVote studies, former FairVote Legal Fellow Maya Efrati has created a comprehensive report on presidential recounts, revealing a disturbingly inadequate legal framework to protect the integrity of our presidential elections. Often, state recount laws actually make meaningful recounts impossible. Even if Michigan had held a recount in 2016, for example, the ballots cast in 60 percent of Detroit’s precincts could not have been recounted since Michigan law prohibits a recount in precincts were the number of ballots in the precinct poll books do not exactly match with the number of ballots case.

The report offers a way forward, however. Congress has the power to bring consistency to presidential recounts. Using proposed legislation originally published in Every Vote Equal, the report outlines a way for Congress to restore public confidence in presidential elections and guarantee that every vote is fairly counted.

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