Update: On December 12, President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin was reaffirmed following a statewide recount that showed him ahead of his closest rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, by nearly 23,000 votes.
Most U.S. elections end with a clear-cut decision. The winner takes office, typically a few weeks after the election, and the losers are free to plan for the next campaign.
But sometimes an election’s not over until the votes are counted a second time. That can happen automatically, if the first count is really close, or at a candidate’s request. Because each state makes its own election laws, the rules differ from state to state.
Forty-three states and the District of Columbia permit a losing candidate to petition for a recount. In 17 states, a voter can petition for a recount as well.
Recounts cost money. In many states, who pays depends on how close the original tally was. Twenty states launch automatic recounts at taxpayer expense if the winning candidate’s margin of victory over the candidate seeking the recount is small — usually between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of votes cast.
If the vote’s not that close, the candidate or voter requesting the recount must assume the cost.
In the news
In a recent example, presidential candidate Jill Stein, who received 1.1 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, requested a recount. The margin between Donald Trump (47.9 percent of the vote) and Stein was greater than the state’s 0.25 percent threshold, so Stein’s campaign has to pay the estimated $3.5 million cost of the recount.
“As long as the petition is valid … the commission must issue a recount order,” Michael Haas, the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s interim administrator, told the Wall Street Journal.
How it works
When the recount is requested by a candidate or a voter, the petition must allege a mistake or a fraud in the original count. In jurisdictions where voting machines were used, officials inspect each machine for signs of tampering or malfunction. Where paper ballots were employed, election officials examine the actual ballots; where voters registered their choices on a computer, the record is the printed receipt of each vote.
A different result?
Does a recount change the election results? Not often. Voter fraud is very rare in the U.S. Human error, however, is a little less rare.
No recount has changed the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. But recounts have made the difference in some Senate and gubernatorial races. In 2008, incumbent Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota led challenger Al Franken by 206 votes. After a monthslong recount, Franken was named the victor by 312 votes.
Staff writer Leigh Hartman contributed to this article.