The Slatest

How a Recount Would Work in Each of the Swing States

A man wearing a "VOTE" mask pumps his fists in a crowded room of people holding documents and ballots.
A worker with the Detroit Department of Elections celebrates after hearing the number of absentee ballots that were counted at the Central Counting Board on Wednesday in Detroit. Elaine Cromie/Getty Images

Joe Biden is getting closer to securing the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win the presidency, and Donald Trump knows that his path to victory is extremely slim. Still, the president has tried to turn the tide by fighting for states that have already been called, either by demanding that vote counting stop (Michigan) or that it continue (Arizona). His campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits challenging the validity of late-arriving absentee ballots and demanding to be able to monitor vote-counting sites. And he has called for a recount of votes in Wisconsin, a state he lost by just over half a percentage point according to the Associated Press. (Update, Nov. 6, 2020: The Georgia secretary of state has also said that there will be a recount given the tight margin.)

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It seems possible that Trump, if he loses, will call for more recounts as part of his challenge of the results’ validity, and it seems that, in many cases where the numbers are close, the states will agree to it. The recount rules vary by state. Some require candidates to meet certain qualifications; others simply want them to cough up the money. Some conduct automatic recounts if the vote totals are close enough; others will only allow them with a court order. And in some states, the opposing candidate can file a counterrecount challenge, while in others a campaign has little to do with the process at all—the recount would come from a request by voters. Here’s what the rules say in the crucial swing states where the results may be contested.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is one of the states that changed its rules after the 2016 election to make it harder to qualify for a recount. If Trump finishes out within 1 percentage point of Biden, he would qualify to ask for a recount. If the gap is larger, he won’t be able to. (The current difference is about 20,000 votes).

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Once the canvassing is complete and the results are confirmed, the campaign will have one business day to request a recount. When requesting it, the candidate must cite a mistake, irregularity, or fraud that he believes justifies the recount. The justification can be a “general statement that the petitioner believes that a mistake or fraud was committed.”

The same officials who canvassed the election results and the same election inspectors who worked on Election Day will conduct the recount, either using voting equipment or counting by hand. The officials will review rejected absentee ballots and provisional ballots as a part of the process.

If Trump finishes within a quarter of a percentage point or less of Biden, the recount would be free for him. If it’s anything more than that, he would have to pay for it. The losing candidate could also appeal the recount in circuit court.

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Georgia 

Georgia does not have an automatic recount, but if the margin is within 0.5 percent, a candidate can request one. The candidate must do so within two days of the certification of the results.

Georgia is one of a few states where an election official may also order a recount if the official believes there was an error. Voters may also request recounts if they believe there is fraud.

Georgia is currently in the unusual position of facing a double runoff election for its Senate seats. While no one was expected to win a majority in the special election for Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat, the regular Senate race between Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff has been more of a nail-biter. Would Perdue reach the 50 percent threshold for avoiding a runoff as third-party candidates siphoned off small numbers of votes? On Thursday, NBC called that Perdue had failed to meet that threshold and would face Ossoff in January. While it’s possible Perdue’s final vote would fall within 0.5 percent of the threshold, he wouldn’t qualify for a recount, according to Luke Bradley, a Savannah attorney who has litigated a recount under the new 2019 laws. A recount could only be ordered if the Secretary of State found there was some kind of discrepancy or error—a theoretical possibility but not something that is likely to happen for such a high-profile race.

Michigan

Michigan is another state that changed its rules to make it harder to qualify. In order to be able to request a recount, the losing candidate must be able to prove they demonstrate “a good-faith belief that they would have had a reasonable chance of winning the election.” This likely means that if Trump trails Biden by any significant amount, 2 points or more, he would not qualify. (Biden currently leads Trump 50.6 percent to 47.8 percent, and it seems he’s holding that more comfortable margin.)

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Once Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers has checked the results of the election, the Trump campaign would have six days to petition for a recount. Biden would then have an opportunity to file a counterpetition for additional recounts should, for example, Trump only ask for recounts in counties he lost.

The process will look similar to a regular election count, except in cases when the ballots were stored improperly or the number of ballots did not match the number that were reported as cast. In those cases, the original count will stand. Clerks can conduct the recounts with machines, with computers, or by hand. The recount will be allowed around a month, but may finish faster.

The cost of the recount will be dependent on how close the race is: If it’s extremely close, it will cost the Trump campaign $25 per precinct. That amount increases to $150 and then $250 with worse odds. If the recount found that the original call was incorrect, the campaign would be reimbursed.

Nevada

Under Nevada election law, any losing candidate can demand a recount within three working days after the vote has been certified. It does not matter how close the race is—what matters is whether the candidate coughs up the expected cost, as estimated by the secretary of state ahead of time. As in Michigan, if the recount changes the outcome of the election, whoever requested the recount would be reimbursed.

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The recount will begin within five days of being requested. The same people involved in the counting of ballots the first time will return to recount the ballots in the same way they originally did. As part of the recount, they will inspect both rejected and accepted ballots. The officials will have five days to complete the recount.

Arizona

In Arizona, a recount can be automatically triggered by extremely fine margins: one-tenth of 1 percent of the number of votes. Unlike in other states, candidates and voters are unable to directly request recounts. If, however, the Trump campaign presses allegations of voter fraud, that could push the state attorney general to take the issue to the courts.

If the recount is approved, the secretary of state will order the ballots to be recounted on an automatic tabulating system. For close margin recounts, 5 percent of the precincts will be randomly chosen for a hand count. There is no set deadline for the recount to be completed.

Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, a recount can be automatically triggered, but only if the results are within 0.5 percent of the total vote. (A recount can also be triggered when there is a discrepancy in the number of votes.) Otherwise, a signed petition from three voters alleging fraud or error can prompt a recount, without having to cite any specific cases or evidence of fraud. The petition would need to be filed within five days of the election result. For the automatic recounts, the task will need to be completed within three weeks of the election. But for those alleging fraud or error, there is no official deadline.

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While the campaign cannot directly demand a recount, candidates can appeal the officials’ decision regarding whether to recount the votes or not to the courts.

If a recount is approved, officials will compare the numbers of ballots returned and processed, and count the votes again using the same methods as in the first count. If there appears to be no evidence of fraud and the election outcome is unchanged in any significant way, the candidate will have to foot the bill for the recount. The results would need to be submitted within three weeks.

Update, Nov. 5, 2020, and 7:10 p.m.: This post has been updated with information about the Georgia Senate race.

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