Absolutely No One Enjoys Election Recounts

The process is an important one in the American electoral system—but it’s also utterly painful.

Reporters examine a ballot during a manual recount in Broward County, Florida, in 2000.
Reporters examine a ballot during a manual recount in Broward County, Florida, in 2000. (Marta Lavandier / AP)

Here’s the first fact you need to know about recounts: Whatever the president or anyone else says, they’re a legitimate part of vote counting and the electoral process. Here’s the second fact you need to know about recounts: It is vanishingly rare that they actually change the initial result.

Those are both important to recall as several notable elections drag on. In Georgia, it’s still not clear whether the Democrat Stacey Abrams can narrow the margin with the Republican Brian Kemp enough to trigger a recount. In Florida, officials on Thursday ordered a hand recount of votes in the U.S. Senate race. The Florida governor’s race is outside the required legal threshold for a hand recount, though legal wrangling continues, and some votes continue to stream in by mail. In all three races, Republicans lead, but Democrats are hoping that a recount could overturn the current status quo and hand them the race or, in Georgia, trigger a runoff.

Without delving into the specific factors of each of the races involved—voter suppression in Georgia, mysterious ballot boxes and dubious ballot designs in Florida, among others—and no matter what Chuck Schumer says, the odds that any recount will reverse the initial results are slim.

But sometimes it does happen. Losing a race under such circumstances is awful—but people who have been on the winning side don’t have fond recollections either.

In 2004, the Republican Dino Rossi took an initial lead in the Washington State governor’s race. Then there was a machine recount and Rossi won that, too. Then there was a hand recount, and that placed the Democrat Christine Gregoire in the lead—by 129 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. She would go on to serve two terms. (Rossi lost a race for the U.S. House this month, his fourth in a string of losses that began in 2004.)

“It was one of the worst times in my professional life,” Gregoire told me. “As a candidate, you think to yourself, ‘Really, I couldn’t have shaken that many more hands?’ You blame yourself. You have regret. My heart goes out to folks in that now.”

Imagine footage you’ve surely seen of Olympic sprinters running so hard they careen face-forward and fall on the track just after crossing the finish line. A political campaign is a bit like that. From the candidate on down, team members know they just have to make it to Election Day, putting all their energy into the battle before finally getting a chance to catch their breath on Wednesday. Now imagine that after having finished a 100-meter race and giving it his all, a runner learns that he has to run another 500 meters—only faster. That’s kind of what it’s like to have a recount.

“A candidate has this mind-set: They work so hard all this time, but at least they know they’re going to get a decision that night or the next day. Win or lose, they’ll get a decision and it will be over,” Gregoire says. “When that doesn’t happen, you have no idea how much of a jolt it will be. Not only do you not get a decision—you don’t know when you’ll get a decision.”

Gregoire’s campaign didn’t have a plan for a recount in place, so she immediately had to begin figuring out what the law was and how things worked. Stephanie Schriock at least had a little bit of head start.

Four years after Gregoire’s win, Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota seemed to have survived a challenge from Al Franken, and even declared victory. But in the end it was the Democrat who triumphed, though it took months for him to claim his seat. Franken won by fewer than 250 votes.

Schriock, who is now the president of EMILY’s List, managed Franken’s campaign. Two years before, she’d led Jon Tester’s extremely close U.S. Senate campaign in Montana. Ahead of that election, she had assigned a lawyer to read up on the recount laws and put them in terms a nonlawyer could understand.

“On Election Night, I said, ‘Break the glass, we need the documents!’” she says. “I spent Election Night reading that memo. I did not make that mistake in Minnesota. We also knew we were very close going in.”

Because of her experience on the Tester campaign, she’d even been asked by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to train other campaign managers ahead of the 2008 election. That came in handy when she found the Franken-Coleman race headed toward a recount, but it didn’t really prepare her for the fight ahead.

The first thing you need to wage a recount battle is a huge number of people. If you’re a Democrat, you probably call the Seattle law firm of Perkins Coie and try to enlist Marc Elias, the elections superlawyer who seems to pop up every time there’s an election-law fight. Elias worked on the Franken recount and was later the general counsel of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. This week alone, he’s working on the Florida Senate race and also sued the North Carolina legislature over election maps.

On Election Day, the combined Democratic campaigns in Minnesota had 180 paid staffers, Schriock said. Within about a week, they’d nearly doubled that, recruiting staffers who’d just finished running campaigns around the country and promising to find them housing in the state. According to Schriock, Elias suggested they’d need another 500 volunteers on top of paid staff. Schriock put out a call for 1,000 and ended up with more like 2,000.

All of those people have to be trained on how to conduct a recount—what the rules are, how to observe, how to read a ballot, and how to challenge it. You need lawyers at every counting spot, ready to jump in. And, of course, you’ve got to take care of the staffers who have been with you all along, who were running full tilt for weeks and months up to Election Day. “You buy a lot of vitamin C,” Schriock says. Gregoire remembers going to rally her troops, pasting a smile on her face even as she felt awful inside.

Then you have to figure out how to pay for all of that. Sometimes that just means paying staffers, but sometimes it means paying for the recount itself. Washington State law provided for a machine recount in the 2004 race. When that tally came in, experts consulting the Gregoire campaign said that given the tight margin, she had a good chance to win if there was a hand recount. But if she wanted a hand recount, her campaign would have to foot the bill. One option was to only pay for hand recounts in a few key counties, but Gregoire rejected that.

“I felt that that wasn’t fair. We either had the money to have a full recount or we didn’t go for it at all. I am one who believes every vote should be counted,” Gregoire says. “I said that publicly, and it was amazing. We got donations from people in literally every state in the United States saying, ‘Don’t you dare give up. You count every last vote.’ Without us going out to raise the money, the money came to us.”

Schriock ended up conferring with her opponents on the Coleman campaign, trying to figure out how they were paying for recount-related costs; in the end, they approached the Federal Election Commission jointly, asking for changes to fund-raising rules for recounts. The FEC considers a recount a new election, so donors who have already given the maximum can give more money to help defray recount costs. In his book Giant of the Senate, Franken grouses that while the Republican National Committee sent a fat check to Coleman, national Democrats only sent a fraction of that amount.

Hand recounts matter because machine recounts are likely to produce roughly the same results as initial counts, says Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Computers—optical scanners for ballots—are consistent: They don’t miscount or mishear numbers, but they also don’t do a good job of discerning voter intent. Let’s say a voter doesn’t fill in a bubble, but rather puts an “X” on it. Or draws a heart around a candidate’s name. Or, as in one case Schriock saw in 2008, writes an entire poem to Barack Obama in the white space on a ballot. A machine will discard that vote as unreadable—but a human can easily tell for whom the voter intended to cast their ballot.

A candidate who moves for a recount also faces the stigma of looking like a sore loser, and having to convince the public and the press that there’s a good reason to keep fighting. Schriock was encouraged partly by a faith that her side would win.

“I did not know in any data that Al was going to come out on top,” she says. “I deeply believed in my heart that we were going to come out on top. I could not believe that Minnesota voted for Barack Obama at a huge clip and didn’t elect Al Franken. It was, deep in my soul, there’s no way.”

She turned out to be right—though Franken was not seated until July 2009, following extensive court challenges by Coleman. Gregoire found out sooner, but animosity lingered. When she gave her inaugural address, some Republicans turned their chairs so that their backs were facing her. “They ended up being my friends,” she says. “But at the time, the anxiety, the emotions are running so high that people do and say things that I suspect they regret.”

Dauntingly, the processes in Georgia and Florida could be more difficult than those in either Washington or Minnesota. The laws are complicated and unclear. There’s a history of suppressing minority votes in both. There were 4 million votes cast in the Georgia governor’s race, and more than 8 million in Florida.

“For those candidates who are going through it, no matter which side they’re on, my heart goes out to them,” Gregoire says.

But recounts, no matter how unpleasant, are an important tool, Burden says. “Some people view them as a source of concern that something has gone wrong, and they may reveal problems,” he says. “I think we would all want a close election to be certain. There’s nothing inherently wrong or problematic about a recount happening.”

Schriock put the stakes in blunter terms.

“You better have a damn good reason why you rejected an American vote,” she says. “Because that’s what you’re talking about, right?”

And if, when all the votes are fairly counted, it’s your candidate on top, all the better.