It’s springtime in the Badger State and with the first blossoms of the season comes a disputed election and a possible recount.
On April 2, Wisconsin voters went to the polls to elect a new justice to the state supreme court. Although nominally nonpartisan, the race was fiercely contested, with issues ranging from the governor’s powers to gerrymandering at stake. Election night returns promised a close race and fewer than 6,000 votes now separate the candidates - a margin of 0.4944%, well under the 1% threshold necessary to request a recount in Wisconsin.
Whenever the prospect of a recount appears on the horizon, we wonder: “could it change the outcome of the race?” The answer is usually “no.” While less than half a percent seems like a razor-thin margin, it might as well be Lake Michigan in a recount.
The difference in vote totals needs to be considerably smaller before a recount is likely to impact the outcome, according to FairVote research. In our study of every statewide recount since 2000, we found that the average margin shift produced by recounts is just 0.0191%. In elections where the total number of votes cast was between 1 and 2 million (as is the case in Wisconsin), the shift was only 0.0188%.
In a hypothetical recount of the Wisconsin election, we would expect to see a margin shift of about 230 votes if we apply the average of all statewide recounts and a shift of about 226 votes under the average of recounts of about the same number of votes.
Conveniently, one of the recounts covered in the study was for a 2011 Wisconsin State Supreme Court race, offering an ideal comparison to the present one. It involved a similar number of total votes (about 1.5 million in 2011 compared to roughly 1.2 million now) and similar difference in vote totals (7,316, or 0.489%, in 2011 compared to 5,960, or 0.4944% now). That recount led to a shift of just 312 votes, or 0.0208% - Not reassuring precedent for those hoping for a reversal in this election.
It’s natural to consider a recount in close elections. In recounts, however, “close” is rarely “close enough.”