A Rundown Of Recount Laws In States With Close Statewide Elections

Workers recount ballots from the 2008 Minnesota Senate race.
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

It’s been a grueling election season, but at least it will all be over next week.

Unless, of course, it’s not. An unusual number of closely contested races means the chances are fairly high that one or more high-profile elections will end in a recount. With nearly 100 House seats in play, a recount could be triggered in just about every state. In Senate and gubernatorial elections, though, we have a better idea of where to watch — i.e., which races are within the margin of error, or narrowing quickly.

Here’s a rundown of recount rules in key states. Remember, control of the Senate could depend on this.


It’s anyone’s guess who’ll win in the Nevada Senate race. Democrat Harry Reid drew the best possible candidate — the extremely conservative and controversial Sharron Angle. But Nevada’s economy is one of the worst in the country, and his constituents… well, they don’t like him very much.

In Nevada, any defeated candidate can request a recount. But first the vote must be canvassed by the state Supreme Court — after that, the Reid or Angle campaigns would have three days to file a recount request with the Secretary of State. They would then select a sampling of precincts in every county, and votes at those precincts would recounted by recount boards formed by county clerks. If partial recount totals match the canvas, then a machine recount is allowed. If there’s a measurable discrepancy, then a hand count is required.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Angle a 48.5-47.4 lead over Reid.


Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias have battered each other thoroughly for the last several months. But nevertheless, neither candidate has been able to open up a significant lead. According to the Board of Elections, once the vote is canvassed, any candidate whose vote total is at least 95 percent of the winner’s can request a recount.

In each county, one quarter of the precincts participates in the recount — and the candidate requesting the recount picks which ones. However, a recount does not begin until the court deems it necessary. The State Supreme Court appoints a Circuit Court judge to supervise the recount, but state law provides no guidance for a counting method.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Kirk a 44.1-42.3 lead over Giannoulias.


After trailing badly for weeks, Democrat Joe Sestak has been surging in the polls — enough so that Republicans are now worried about the outcome. Earlier this year, Governor Ed Rendell signed automatic recount legislation into law. According to the new law, a recount is mandatory if the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent. Any greater than that, and statewide office seekers have to request a recount of all votes cast.

In districts with paper ballots, the ballots are manually recounted, but in districts with electronic voting machines and no paper trail, an electronic review is performed, comparing the count on each machine to the initial canvas of returns.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Toomey a 45.5-44.6 lead over Sestak.


Democrat Patty Murray still has the edge in this contest, but Republican Dino Rossi’s no political naif. This race will be close. If it’s really close — i.e. if the vote margin is both less than 200 votes and 0.5 percent or smaller — that will automatically trigger a recount. A hand recount is required if those margins are tighter still 0.25 percent and 1000 votes.

Any candidate can request a recount of all non-electronic votes. However, if the outcome of the election changes as a result of a recount, then a full recount is mandatory.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Murray a 49.3-45.8 lead over Rossi.


This is a make or break week for Sen. Russ Feingold (D), who’s been trailing Republican Ron Johnson in the polls for weeks. But recently he’s seen an uptick in momentum and, with same-day voter registration, he can really get out the vote.

Recounts in Wisconsin are all candidate- or voter-initiated. The petitioners can petition the court for a hand recount. Wisconsin otherwise has an extremely detailed recount process, which can be accessed here.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Johnson a 51.7-44.4 lead over Feingold.


Counting votes in Alaska is hard enough, particularly in a three-way race. But that’s what election officials will have to contend with, and two of the three candidates — insurgent Republican Joe Miller, and Republican-turned-write-in-independent Lisa Murkowski — are neck-and-neck.

Only an absolute tie automatically triggers a recount in Alaska. Voters and candidates can request a recount within five days of the state’s review of the vote, if they suspect an erroneous or fraudulent vote count. The recount lasts no more than 10 days. In Alaska, officials use a paper audit trail to recount electronic votes.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Murkowski a 36.7-36.0 lead over Miller.


Republican Ken Buck has had a small but steady lead over incumbent Michael Bennet all year. But he’s also come under increasing scrutiny for controversial remarks he’s made about women and gay people dating back to his primary campaign against Jane Norton.

In Colorado, a recount is triggered if the vote margin is equal to or less than 0.5 percent — but officials there tabulate their vote margins oddly. Rather than dividing the difference in votes by the total number of votes cast, the margin is determined by dividing the difference in votes by the number of votes the winner received. That’s bad news for an underdog.

If the margin is wider, a candidate can request a recount within 24 days of the general election. Before a recount begins, the canvassing board tests voting machines with a sample set of ballots to determine the machines’ accuracy. If the machines are determined to have malfunctioned, officials turn to the paper audit trail, and the Secretary of State lays out special rules governing the recount.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Buck a 48.0-44.9 lead over Bennet.


Senate races aren’t the only ones coming down to the wire. Governorships are up for grabs all over the country, some in very tightly contested races. In Ohio, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland has narrowed John Kasich’s once-significant lead, and the trend lines are still closing.

For statewide election in Ohio, a recount is only automatic if the vote margin is 0.25 percent. Above that, and candidates and voters must request recounts, and they can request them in any and all precincts. The recount process itself is trickier. Officials select precincts at random equal to 5 percent of the total votes cast, and compare a hand count with the electronic summary of those votes. If they differ, and that difference persists, a hand recount is required.

The TPM Polltracker average gives Kasich a 48.0-44.5 lead over Strickland.


After Bush v. Gore, the sunshine state might as well be known as the recount state. And in Florida, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink are less than two points apart.

A recount of paper ballots is automatic if the vote margin is 0.5 percent or less. If that margin is less than or equal to 0.25 percent, it triggers a hand recount of ballots containing undervotes and overvotes. However, that hand count is only mandatory if the total number of ballots with undervotes and overvotes could change the initial results of the election.

The TPM Polltacker average gives Scott a 45.7-43.9 lead over Sink.

Of course, with so many House seats in play, recounts could happen just about everywhere. Citizens for Election Integrity has a useful rundown of statwide, and non-statewide recount rules in every state.

Latest DC
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: