What if a close race happens to me? Election officials reflect on recounts and election contests.

Dec 12, 2017

Last spring, we published a series of weekly blog posts on voter list maintenance. These “Maintenance Monday” posts included Q&As with state and local election officials across the country and culminated in a final post that summarized ten key takeaways from the discussion. Based on the positive feedback we received on the series, we decided to do it again – this time on the topic of close elections, recounts and election contests in a series we’re calling “Recount Ready.”

As preliminary results were announced for last month’s elections, local election officials in New Jersey, Virginia and other localities across the country braced for the possibility of recounts and election contests in their jurisdictions. In Virginia’s House of Delegates District 94, preliminary results showed 13 votes separating the top two candidates in a race where more than 23,000 ballots were cast. Following the canvass and consideration of provisional ballots, which narrowed the margin to 10 votes, the election now heads to a candidate-requested recount. Hamilton County, Ohio had seven races within recount margins. Adams County, Colorado had five such races. Municipal council races in East Helena, Montana, Northglenn, Colorado, and Winslow, Maine resulted in dead-even ties – and this is just a small sample of this year’s tight races.

Razor-thin margins like these happen regularly in U.S. elections. When they do, political parties, candidates and their lawyers scramble to collect information on provisional ballots, ballots cast by mail and any problems that may have occurred at the polls – anything that they believe could help them in a recount and/or post-election litigation. Journalists also rush in to investigate the process and report to the public about how it will unfold. Terms like ‘canvass,’ ‘undervote,’ ‘overvote,’ ‘voter intent,’ among many others that are unfamiliar to most people, are thrust into the political discourse, and the elections process can suddenly be put under a microscope. 

This intense scrutiny presents real challenges to local election officials, who must neutrally implement the law, fairly administer any recounts and potentially participate in legal proceedings – all the while keeping the public and affected candidates adequately informed of the process.

Here at the EAC, which was created by the Help America Vote Act in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, we work to support state and local election officials in all facets of election administration including preparing for recounts. With that in mind, we spoke with six state and local election officials about their experiences with close elections, recounts and election contests, and asked them to share their insights on what election offices across the country can do to become “Recount Ready."

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