What Circumstances Trigger an Election Recount?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An election recount is typically ordered or requested when the margin of victory in an election is extremely small, or when people believe that the election may have been dishonest. As a general rule, only one recount per election will be allowed, although people can potentially contest the results in a court to demand another recount or additional verification of the validity of the election. Recounts can get expensive and time consuming, and most governments prefer to avoid them, if possible.

Election recounts can be triggered by a small margin of victory or suspected dishonesty of the vote.
Election recounts can be triggered by a small margin of victory or suspected dishonesty of the vote.

There are two types of recounts. In mandatory recounts, certain conditions surrounding the election mean that the government is required to conduct an audit of the results. In these situations, the individual who loses can choose to waive the recount, indicating that he or she accepts the results of the election as valid; losers of close elections are often pressured to waive their right to a recount. Mandatory recounts are generally ordered when the margin of victory is extremely close. For example, a jurisdiction might mandate recounts when the margin is less than 0.05%, or when the difference is 2,000 votes or less.

Election recalls are triggered when outcomes are extremely close, or when questions have been raised about how votes were garnered or counted.
Election recalls are triggered when outcomes are extremely close, or when questions have been raised about how votes were garnered or counted.

In an optional recount, someone can specifically request that the ballots be counted again to verify election results. Someone who loses an election can request this, or a member of the general public can file a request. The person who asks for the recount must usually bear the costs, and in many cases, a deposit is required with a request, to confirm that the person is serious about questioning the election results.

People can ask for an optional recount if the margin of victory is very low, or if they suspect that voting irregularities have occurred. Irregularities can include things like voter intimidation, malfunctioning voting machines, lost ballot boxes, and so forth. Some nations use neutral election observers to monitor elections for signs of such irregularities so that they can be addressed as they occur or are reported.

When a government counts ballots again after an election, it has the option of doing it by machine or by hand. A machine recount typically takes less than a day, as the ballots simply need to be fed through the scanning machines used to read results again. In the case of electronic voting, the information at the polling stations is taken from the hard drives again, or any paper trail will be audited by machine to confirm the results. In a hand or manual recount, the ballots are personally examined in a process that can take weeks or even months.

A candidate who loses an election may request a recount if the margin was below a given threshold.
A candidate who loses an election may request a recount if the margin was below a given threshold.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Emilski - I cannot believe that there are actually laws put in place that let a game of poker determine who will become a public official.

I have to say that there are other unique laws across the country if one really looks as well as circumstances that can trigger a recount of the votes.

I know there was once a very small town that voted for Mickey Mouse to become mayor simply because they did not like the two candidates running.

When this occurred they did not know what to do so the town simply had another election so they could determine a person to be the winner that was both a resident of the town as well as an existing figure.

I know that there are different rules for different areas as well as for different types of offices.

A small town may have really unique circumstances that trigger a recount and I am really wondering if anyone knows anything like this that may either not make sense or is really unusual besides the one town and five card stud?


@jmc88 - I remember that occurring and the Supreme Court's decision caused some people to cry foul as they made their decision in a way that has never happened before or since.

Some claim that political motivations caused the justices to rule the way they did and this could be the case, but could just be a really weird and unique case that will probably never occur again.

As far as local and state elections go there are all kinds of weird and unique laws in place to decide a winner.

In my town a mayoral recount only occurs if there is a 50 vote disparity and if it is within ten votes there is a new election. I heard of one town out west that if in an election that is too close to call that even a recount cannot decide then the two candidates play a hand of five card stud and the winner will win the election.

@TreeMan - That is quite an interesting story and it seems to me like there was no other way around the problems that had occurred to declare a winner besides starting over, which was probably impossible to do.

A more modern example I can think of, that does not necessarily revolve around fraud per se , is the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which basically came down to a voter recount in one county due to error.

When this occurred the state and local laws sought a recount because of incorrect ballots that confused people and what eventually happened was the Republicans sought a Supreme Court decision which although controversial and highly divided within the court, favored the stoppage of the recount.

This instance of an election recount will probably never happen again at this level and it was such a unique circumstance that for the only time in the court's history the justices decided their decision could not be a set precedent for future cases of that nature and was a one time decision.

As a historian, I can say that election fraud has happened ever since governments have turned away from being direct democracy.

There are numerous instances in the past of election fraud occurring not just in local and state elections, but also for national elections like the one for president.

One that comes to mind is the election of 1876 when the outcome was decided by just a few electoral votes and there was so much election fraud on each side that it was deemed utterly impossible for the courts to rule these votes out because both sides did it and committed voter fraud so often.

That situation was solved by a political compromise in which the Republicans basically received the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction in the South, which was controlled mainly by the Democrats.


@SailorJerry - I do see your point. We have all been let down by our computers at one time or another and it can be frightening to think of them being in charge of voting!

But keep in mind that there is plenty of potential for error with paper ballots, too. Boxes of ballots could be lost or stolen; a whole warehouse of them could be burned down or flooded.

And there is *some* safeguard against wholesale tampering with voting machines. Remember that news organizations conduct exit polling (basically, people stand around outside a polling place and ask voters who they voted for). If there were a wide discrepancy between the machines and the exit polling, it sure would look suspicious and presumably there would be an investigation.


Is anyone else really uncomfortable with the idea that with electronic voting machines, there is no paper trail to recount? There is just no proof that the machine is tabulating your vote correctly. What if the machine were tampered with or damaged?

I know that they are convenient and they're supposed to reduce the possibility of error, but to me they just seem like an accident waiting to happen.

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