Voices & Choices

The Florida problem: recounts matter, but usually don’t change results

The Florida problem: recounts matter, but usually don’t change results

We need to talk about Florida.

The Sunshine State is holding three statewide recounts: for governor, U.S. senator, and state agricultural commissioner. (This does not count the three other recounts in state legislative races). To put this number in perspective, between 2000 and 2015, there were only 27 statewide recounts in all American elections, meaning Florida’s 2018 elections account for about 10 percent of all statewide recounts held in the 21st Century.

Between the heavily polarized political climate and uncomfortable memories of recounts past, the Florida recounts are receiving a lot of national attention. As stories of administrative mismanagement and unsupported allegations of fraud dominate the news, many may be wondering: will recounts change the outcome of any of these races?

Probably not.

A 2016 FairVote report analyzing all statewide recounts since 2000 concluded that recounts only reversed initial outcomes in 11.1 percent of cases. The margin shift (the change in the difference in votes between candidates) in recounts tends to be very small as well. Most recounts only see a shift of a few hundred votes (282 on average), compared with the thousands of votes separating candidates in Florida races under recount now.

What kind of margin shifts are we likely to see in Florida? Consider candidates’ current vote totals in light of the average margin shifts in statewide recounts, the margin shifts in the three recounts that did change the outcome and (why not?) the margin shift in the 2000 Florida presidential recount.

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It does not look good for the underdogs, with only one scenario in which the margin shift is enough to change the outcome in any of the races. If the state agricultural commissioner recount sees the same margin shift as the 2006 Vermont state auditor recount, we might see a different result. Otherwise, the vote totals are unlikely to move enough to affect the outcomes.

The Florida recounts may reveal serious issues with how the election was run, but they are unlikely to change winners. Recounts are important tools that are crucial to maintaining the integrity of elections, but they are not do-overs. Even if the Florida recounts end with the same winning candidates, Florida lawmakers should take this opportunity to learn from the recounts and make the necessary fixes so the same issues do not come up again. After all, 2020 is just two years away.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham 

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