How to Know When to Seek an Election Recount

To seek a recount, or to not seek a recount, that dear candidate is the question.

But what is the answer?


In my experience, not seeking a recount is probably the wisest course of action.

During my 24 years working on political campaigns, I’ve been involved in two recounts.

Neither one of them changed the result of the election — though one of them probably would have if it had been fairly and lawfully conducted.

I may write about that illegitimate recount in the future, but that’s not our focus in this article.

Considering a Recount

After spending countless weeks and months campaigning for office, it is natural to be disappointed should you not win an election.

That’s a natural and very human reaction.

You run for office for one reason and one reason alone.  You run to win.

You do all you can physically, mentally, legally, ethically, and morally to get elected to the office you’re seeking.

Unfortunately, even when you’ve left it all on the proverbial playing field, you can still come up short.

It happens to almost every political candidate at one time or another.

And when it does, you mourn the loss, you accept the loss, and you analyze the loss to learn from it.

Then you prepare yourself for the next campaign if that is your calling or desire.

But sometimes you lose a close one, and those are the hardest to accept.

You can’t help but wondering if maybe all of your votes weren’t counted or if the tally was done wrong.

To tell you the truth, both things do happen — and probably more than you or the rest of America would like to know — especially in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election.

Now what I’m telling you isn’t a conspiracy theory or an attempt to discredit our electoral systems, it’s real.

Why All Votes Don’t Get Counted

Votes that are legally cast don’t always get counted after the election.

This happens for a variety of reasons, most affecting the optical scanning machine’s ability to register a vote.

For instance:

  • The ballot was damaged and can’t be put into the machine for scanning
  • The voter didn’t mark their choice dark enough on the ballot and the machine can’t read it
  • The voter marked their choice but not in the proper place – again the machine can’t read it
  • The voter marked too many choices on their ballot – for instance it says vote for no more than two and they marked the names of three candidates
  • The voter scratched out the name of the person they first or accidentally voted for then circled another candidates name

I’ve seen all of these.

And in not all of these instances could a legal vote or the voter’s intention be discerned.

But on a ballot where it could be, a hand recount likely would discover such votes that were missed and add them to the tally.

When to Pursue a Recount and When to Walk Away

Knowing there is a certain amount of error and uncounted ballots in every election, when should you as a candidate pursue a recount?

Only if the margin between you and the winning candidate ahead of you is very slim.

How should you define very slim?

Probably even smaller and slimmer than you think.

If you lost by a full percentage point – a recount is unlikely to change the outcome of your race. Walk away.

If you lost by half a percentage point – a recount is worth considering, but only if several hundreds of thousands of votes were cast. Otherwise, walk away.

If you lost by only a quarter of a percentage point – a recount is definitely worth a shot, especially if the real number of votes separating you from victory is in the double digits.

If you’ve lost by less than ten votes – you’d have to be crazy not do do a recount.

Recounting Voting Machines

Paper ballots are easy to recount and do so properly in what is known as a hand recount.

Voting machines are another story entirely.

You’d think this would be the easiest part of the recount.  It’s actually the trickiest.

Most election officials will want to run the recount tallies for each individual voting machine from the memory card they remove from the machines when the polls closed.

Yes, you do want those counted but the likelihood that they will show a different result then before is near zero.

What you want for a recount of voting machines is to have the tallies run from of the backup or redundant memory kept on each individual voting machine.

Then you compare the printed results from each machine’s backup memory to the printed results from each memory card taken from the machine to do the count.

That’s the way you’re going to be able to find out if the actual votes cast on any voting machines in your race were accurately recorded, transferred, and counted.

And if you find a difference in those two, then you’ve discovered something more than some missing votes — you’ve uncovered very serious election fraud in your jurisdiction.

Candidate Take-Aways

After all the votes have been counted, and you didn’t win your election, there’s little chance that a recount will change that outcome.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no chance at all.

If you lost by 0.25% or less than 10 votes, you should definitely consider a recount.

And if you have to recount any voting machines, make sure to compare the backup memory from each machine with the memory cards removed and used to tally your vote.

It may not change the outcome of your race, but it will give you and the voters peace of mind about the legitimacy of the election.