Virginia Board of Elections employees count the receipts from voting machines in 2006 in Richmond. It’s possible the state could see a recount in its Senate race this year.
It’s the seven-letter word that operatives and politicians dread: recount. The process can drag out an expensive race long past Election Day.
Just ask Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who officially won his seat after eight months of legal wrangling in a recount following the 2008 elections. The process is even more common in House races — several of which had recounts in 2010.
The recount process varies by state, which is why national parties already have attorneys on standby in key battlegrounds. Here’s your guide to the process in states with top Senate races and “orphan states” where there are many competitive House races but nothing else of note at the top of the ticket.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) vs. Rep. Jeff Flake (R)
The threshold: There’s an automatic recount if the margin between the top two candidates is equal to or less than one-tenth of 1 percent, or if the margin is less than 200 votes for statewide office. The process: The courts order county recorders to start the recount process, which includes resetting the machines and retabulating results via a process approved by the secretary of state. The fine print: The candidates can’t request a recount. The automatic recount is the only recount permitted under state law.
Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) vs. state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R)
The threshold: Either a candidate, party chairman or voter must file for a recount. The deadline is 14 days after the election. The process: It’s run by a three-member commission that includes a Republican, a Democrat and the secretary of state (currently a Republican). The fine print: The petitioner must specify which precincts should be recounted. The cost is $10 per precinct, plus a $100 deposit, if the final margin is less than 1 percent. The cost increases if the margin is greater than that.
The threshold: The candidates can request a recount with the secretary of state before Friday, Nov. 30. The process: The initiator, usually a candidate, selects 5 percent of precincts within each of the chosen counties. If there’s a significant discrepancy with the reported vote totals, the candidate can request a full hand recount. The fine print: The recount requestor must pay for the estimated cost of the recount at the outset.
The threshold: Only a certified tie triggers an automatic recount. However, the unsuccessful candidate can request a recount at the state’s expense if the margin is less than a quarter of 1 percent. The process: County election administrators must announce a recount and give the public an opportunity to observe the process. In a hand recount, the candidates can challenge individual ballots, then a recount board can set aside questionable ballots for later review. The fine print: The apparent unsuccessful candidate can request a recount at their own expense if the margin is between a quarter and a half of 1 percent.
Rep. Rick Berg (R) vs. former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D)
The threshold: There’s an automatic recount if the apparent victor wins by less than half of 1 percent of his or her total votes. A candidate can request a recount at their own expense if the margin is less than 2 percent. The process: Ballots are recounted in their original manner (optical scan, paper, etc.), one by one, while a recount board rules on any challenged ballots. Candidates can request full hand recount. The fine print: The state has no voter registration. Separate from a recount, the parties can contest the election to challenge voter standing.
The threshold: There’s an automatic recount if the margin is less than a quarter of 1 percent in a statewide contest. Otherwise, a losing candidate or a group of five voters can request a recount at their own expense. The process: The Board of Elections runs the recount and handles the ballots. It is required to notify participating parties in advance of its counting sessions. The fine print: If the recount changes the results of the election, the new losing candidate can apply for a recount in any remaining precincts that were already recounted.
Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vs. former Sen. George Allen (R)
The threshold: A candidate can request a recount if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 1 percent. The petitioner has 10 days to file after certification. The process: Officials hand-count paper ballots and the printouts from electronic voting machines. Officials will rerun ballots cast via optical scan, setting aside questionable ballots. The fine print: Local officials won’t certify results until late November, so a recount would most likely ensue in December.
The threshold: Only a candidate can initiate a recount for office after the canvass board is complete. The process: The County Board of Canvassers counts the ballots in the same manner that they were tallied on Election Day (optical scan, etc.). The candidates can request a hand recount. The fine print: The state carries the cost of the recount if the margin between the top two candidates is less than half of 1 percent.
Top House Races in ‘Orphan States’
18th district: Sean Patrick Maloney (D) vs. Rep. Nan Hayworth (R) 19th district: Julian Schreibman (D) vs. Rep. Chris Gibson (R) 27th district: Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) vs. former Erie County Executive Chris Collins (R)
The threshold: There’s no automatic recount under state law for House races. The process: Candidates must sue for a recount, giving a reason why the machines were not reliable vote-counters. The fine print: This could make for a legal mess. There’s relatively little in state law books about recounts.
10th district: Businessman Brad Schneider (D) vs. Rep. Robert Dold (R) 11th district: Former Rep. Bill Foster (D) vs. Rep. Judy Biggert (R) 12th district: Retired Maj. Gen. William Enyart (D) vs. businessman Jason Plummer 13th district: Physician David Gill (D) vs. former Congressional aide Rodney Davis (R) 17th district: Former East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos (D) vs. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R)
The threshold: There’s no automatic recount. Instead, candidates can initiate a “discovery recount” if they acquire at least 95 percent of the winner’s vote totals. The process: Candidates can only pick 25 percent of the precincts in any given county in the district. They can examine the ballots for mistakes or stray marks, as well as errors in ballot applications. Discovery recount results are not binding, and the findings can only serve as proof for an eventual lawsuit. The fine print: A judge makes the final decision on whether a recount is warranted.
7th district: Physician Ami Bera (D) vs. Rep. Dan Lungren (R) 9th district: Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) vs. Ricky Gill (R) 10th district: Astronaut Jose Hernandez (D) vs. Rep. Jeff Denham (R) 24th district: Rep. Lois Capps (D) vs. former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (R) 26th district: Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D) vs. state Sen. Tony Strickland (R) 36th district: Physician Raul Ruiz (D) vs. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) 52nd district: San Diego Port Commissioner Scott Peters (D) vs. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R)
The threshold: Candidates must file a request for a recount in any or all counties in the district at their own expense. The process: Officials may examine all ballots at the candidates’ request. County registrars run the recount, during which attorneys and observers can challenge ballots. Election officials make the final call on whether to allow the vote. The fine print: The initiator does not have to pay for the recount if the results change the outcome of the election. But in California, it’s a rare circumstance for House races.
Source: Each state’s secretary of state or elections office, or Citizens for Election Integrity.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.