Here’s How a Recount Works

A stack of ballots accompanied by small text that says "EXPLAINER" and large text that says “Recounts"

With Democrats and Republicans facing off in highly competitive races all across the country, don’t be surprised if we see recounts. In fact, it’s possible we may see more recounts this year than we did in 2020, since at least one state has changed their recount rules to make them more common. As we’ve covered before, recounts can seem complicated — every state has different rules and timelines. Let’s break it down with a refresher on how they work.

Once the canvass is complete and the certified results are released, some races may proceed to a recount. The way a recount can be initiated differs by state, such as an automatically triggered recount versus a recount that must be requested:

  • In some states, there will automatically be a recount if the vote margin of the certified result is within a certain range. For example, there might be an automatic recount if the vote margin is less than 0.25%. Pennsylvania has an automatic recount if the margin is 0.5% or less.
  • In other states, there are no automatic recounts. Instead, the trailing candidate can request a recount by filing paperwork with the election official or in court. Some states only allow the trailing candidate to request a recount if the vote margin is within a certain range. For example, the state law might say that the vote margin needs to be 1% or less for the trailing candidate to have the right to request a recount. In Georgia, there is no automatic recount, but candidates can request as a matter of right when the margin between the top two candidates is less than one half of one percent.
  • In some states, the candidate who requests a recount must pay the costs of conducting the recount. For example, in Wisconsin the state will only pay for a recount if the margin is 0.25% or less.
  • Finally, some states give the candidate requesting the recount the option to recount the entire state, district or specific counties or precincts.

Once a recount is initiated, it could either be a “hand recount” where ballots are examined one-by-one in person or a “machine recount” where the ballots are run back through the tabulator a second time. Some states conduct both types of recounts.

  • In a hand recount, election officials examine each ballot to determine who the voter intended to vote for. It is common during this process for parties to raise challenges to ballots and for election officials to judge those challenges on a case-by-case basis. There can also be litigation during this process to determine the standards used to define what counts as a valid vote (for example, whether an “X” through the oval next to a candidate’s name should count as a vote).
  • Machine recounts are generally more straightforward: the ballots for the race being recounted are fed back through the machine to ensure the machine itself did not make any counting errors. Where there is a discrepancy between the results of a recount and the certified results, either the recount results will stand or a court may decide which set of results to use to certify the election.

Ultimately, there are many factors dictating what a recount will look like — vote margin, hand or machine count and other state laws guiding the process. Once the certified results are released and recounts are officially requested, we at Democracy Docket will keep you informed on everything you need to know to follow along.

Remember: recounts almost never flip the results of the election. According to FairVote, there have only been 31 recounts in the past 20 years, out of more than 5,700 statewide general elections. Of those races, only three changed the outcome of the election and only shifted the final margin by a few hundred votes.