Becoming “Recount Ready” - Preparing for Close Elections, Recounts and Election Contests

Jan 31, 2018
Following the November 2017 elections, as recounts and post-election litigation continued to play out in Virginia and other localities across the country, we connected with a handful of election officials about their experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests. This final post in the “Recount Ready” series identifies eight key takeaways that summarize some common guidance, observations and themes that emerged from the discussion:
1. Preparation is paramount. Election night is simply too late for election officials to begin preparing for the eventuality of a close election, recount and/or election contest (or other post-election litigation). The immediate post-election period is a challenging time for election officials –staff and volunteers are tired, tensions are high, and media scrutiny is at its peak. Having robust communications and operational plans in place for close elections can help avoid, or at least mitigate, problems in this tense period.
2. Know the legal and administrative framework for recounts. In the event of a recount, journalists, candidates, election office staff and others will rely on election officials for information on recounts and the broader results management process. It is important for election officials (and their offices’ lawyers) to build and maintain a solid understanding of relevant statutes, regulations, and other instructions or administrative practices on recounts. Sherrie Swensen and other contributors noted working closely with county attorneys throughout their recount processes. Reviewing the legal and administrative framework for recounts well in advance of elections can also help identify potential gaps, weaknesses and/or needed changes, including in areas that local election officials can implement directly (e.g. checklists, training materials, etc.).
3. Transparency and openness. Suspicions run high during close elections. Journalists, campaigns, lawyers, advocacy groups and concerned citizens will be knocking down the door, heavily scrutinizing the process, and spreading information on the election offices’ actions and inactions. Intentionally or not, this swirl of post-election information can often include misinformation and rumors. Neal Kelley noted he wished he had known before he experienced it just how “brutal” this could be. One key to surviving this scrutiny, minimizing suspicions and maintaining stakeholder trust is making post-election processes as open and transparent as possible, allowing all eligible observers access to information and a full view of the process. 
4. Proactive and frequent communications. Gary Poser noted the importance of proactively and regularly communicating with affected candidates, the media and the broader public about the process, and combatting rumors as they emerge. These efforts can also go a long way towards strengthening stakeholder trust and minimizing suspicion. Additionally, certain questions are sure to be asked in this period, such as the cost of the recount, who will foot the bill and what recourse a losing candidate has. Election officials who have answers to these questions before they are asked will surely be spared some headaches.
5. Document, document, document. As both Paul Lux and Lynn Bailey touched on in their posts, thorough and contemporaneous documentation of post-election processes and decisions serve as invaluable resources for election officials asked to explain their work during legal proceedings. This is true for high-profile issues, such as ballot chain-of-custody and recount officials’ voter intent decisions on difficult ballots, as well as lower-profile issues like poll workers’ provisional ballot justifications.
6. Don’t go it alone. In addition to consulting with lawyers representing the election office and other election officials affected by the recount, election officials can benefit by reaching out to peer election officials with recount experience. Nearly all of our contributors recalled peers who helped them through their first recount experiences. Election officials, particularly those within the same state, are certain to have relevant experience and advice to share, and can offer some much-needed solidarity during a heated recount or election contest.
7. Take a breath. EAC Executive Director Brian Newby recalls a state legislative election recount and court challenge in 2006 when he was Election Commissioner for Johnson County, Kansas, where the race was ultimately decided by two votes. He notes, “It’s one thing to prepare your office’s processes for recounts, but it’s another thing altogether to prepare for the personal attacks that can come your way in a close election. If you find yourself attacked online or in the media, take a breath and know that the frustration is coming from a place where someone has invested a lot of time and emotion in the campaign. It’s not personal, even though it may feel that way at the time -- you are just a convenient target. Also, take comfort in the fact that there are hundreds of election administrators who have gone through the same thing.”
8. Learn from the past and present. Whether infamous recounts like Florida 2000 and Minnesota 2008 or a lower profile one like the 2010 state legislative recount in Texas that Dana DeBeauvoir discussed, close elections from the past and those occurring today can teach election administrators about what might happen in their own jurisdictions in the future, and inform planning and reform efforts. In addition to news coverage, a number of books and reports have been published over the years that document the stories and lessons of several recounts. For example, the Office of the Secretary of State in Washington State published a retrospective account of its gubernatorial recount in 2004.
With the 2018 elections fast approaching, we hope the information and resources shared in the series will prove helpful to election officials and support their efforts to become “Recount Ready.”
EAC Resources on Recounts and Post-Election Processes
election administration
election assistance
election official
post election

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