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How Do Election Recounts Work in Battleground States?

In a tight race, some vote recounts happen automatically, while others must be requested

A worker prepares ballots to be counted

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

A poll worker sorts out ballots in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

En español | Even though the 2020 presidential race has been called for President-elect Joe Biden, results in a number of key battleground states remain relatively close. Those margins could trigger automatic recounts in some states, and recounts could be requested in others.

The rules governing recounts differ by state, but history shows that they rarely change the outcome of a race.

"A recount overturning an election is very rare,” says Deb Otis, a senior research analyst at FairVote, a nonpartisan election-reform organization. “It's only happened three times in the last 20 years” in statewide races, she adds. The best-known case of a recount overturning a major race occurred in 2008, when Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who spent most of his career as a stand-up comedian, won his U.S. Senate race by 215 votes after a recount. Out of the 5,778 statewide general elections held between 2000 and 2019, there were only 31 recounts.

Recounts cannot be requested until all the votes in a particular state are counted. And the timetable is tight. This year all states must certify their results by Dec. 8. The members of the Electoral College will meet Dec. 14 to formally cast their electoral votes; then Congress will meet on Jan. 6 to count those votes.

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Here's a look at the rules for recounts in a number of hotly contested battleground states.

  • Arizona: A recount cannot be requested in this state, but an automatic one is triggered if the vote margin is 0.1 percent or less. Arizona requires the recount to include a hand count of a sample of ballots combined with a retabulation using machines. There is no deadline for completing the recount, although a court can set one.
  • Georgia: The secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has already said that he anticipates a recount because the margin in Georgia is razor-thin. Candidates can ask for a recount if the vote margin is 0.5 percent or less. The request must be made within two days after the results are certified. Georgia officials have until Nov. 17 to certify the election results. The state elections board can decide how to conduct the recount. State law does not specify a deadline to complete the recount.
  • Nevada: There are no automatic recounts in Nevada, but any losing candidate — or a voter — can request one within three business days of the original count's completion. The recount must start within five days of the request, and election officials have five days to complete it. According to Nevada law, the recount must be conducted in the same manner as the votes were originally tabulated.
  • Pennsylvania: In the Keystone State, a recount is automatically triggered if the gap between the two candidates is 0.5 percent or closer. If the margin is wider, candidates cannot request a recount, but three voters can sign a petition requesting one. Nov. 12 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for a recount to be ordered. The individual county election boards have to recount all the ballots, either by hand or with voting machines. If the slim vote gap triggers a mandatory recount, election officials have three weeks to complete it.
  • Wisconsin: President Donald Trump has already requested a recount in the Badger State. A candidate can ask for a recount if the vote margin is less than 1 percent. The recount must be requested by 5 p.m. on the first business day after the state has received final election results from all counties. Local election officials decide whether to hand-count the ballots or use voting equipment to retabulate the results. They have 13 days to conduct the recount.

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