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ETpro's avatar

In disputed elections, why would the recount be more accurate than the first count?

Asked by ETpro (34208 points ) April 19th, 2010

What is improved in the counting methods used in a recount? Why is it inherently more accurate than the first count of votes? If it is really more accurate, why not just use the higher accuracy counting method to start with?

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15 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

It is audited by people with a huge chip on their shoulder.

Thammuz's avatar

As i see it recounts that actually change the outcome are either because someone fucked up beyond belief and they know it so they call for a recount or someone’s been bribed.

If they don’t change shit it’s just someone being a sore loser.

slick44's avatar

Its not more accurate. For some reason it just makes people feel better.

Fyrius's avatar

Isn’t the idea just that counting twice is more reliable than counting once?
If the number is the same the second time, it’s confirmed. If it’s not, you will know there’s something fishy going on with one count or the other, or both.
And I’d suggest counting a third time and seeing which number is replicated, if either. Otherwise, take the average.

Pretty_Lilly's avatar

Because in the event of a recount they would call in this guy to do it !

dalepetrie's avatar

Basically, it’s more accurate for a couple of reasons. First of all, most ballots are processed by some form of computer at the local precinct level. If a computer misreads something, which does happen, or is tampered with, which does happen, particularly machines which have a paper trail or which use a paper ballot which is fed into an optical reader, can be corrected for these errors. The ugly truth is that elections in this country are no more than a statistical estimate, with a very small margin of error. In other words, the real results, unless some wholesale fraud occurs, are never going to be exactly right, but they are also not going to be “statistically significant.” The concept of statistical significance works well if you’re talking about some things, like say you’re an accountant balancing the books, and you’re off by 1 tenth of one percent on something, and it adds up to a few bucks, you’d spend more of the company’s money looking for the small error than you would by just writing off the difference. That’s a standard of materiality. Generally in an election, if the difference between the top two vote getters is within half a percent, that realistically could be due to errors in the counting.

But realistically a lot of different types of errors can occur. There is the scenario I mentioned where for some reason the computer misreads a ballot for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a fill in the circle type ballot and someone made a mark in the wrong circle, and erased it, but the computer picked up that two spots were darkened and threw the whole ballot out…does happen. Or some times the county election officials enter the counts, whether generated by hand or by computer, into a spreadsheet which is sent to the Secretary of State, and some times they can be a tabulation error, a moved decimal place, one candidate’s votes put in another’s column, some missing, whatever. Some times entire stacks of absentee ballots end up lost in the shuffle.

Point is, if you have two candidates and one gets 55% of the vote and the other gets 45%, you can be confident that no matter what errors might have occurred (and there will ALWAYS be some), even if everything that could go wrong did and all those errors benefited the candidate with 55%, you can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that the person with 55% won no matter what. Because an election is an attempt to measure majority opinion at one very specific point in time. The election itself isn’t as much about counting votes as it is about determining the will of the electorate at that point in time. What was the intent of the voters, basically. But let’s say you come up with 50.1% vs 49.9%, then you really don’t know who won. You can use statistical analysis to say that there is a 99.99% possibility (or whatever it is) that the actual results were within half a percentage point, but that could be 49.6 to 50.4, or it could be 50.6 vs 49.4 or anything inbetween. If the difference is more than half a percent, you can say that though it remains within the realm of possibility that there could have been an error that impacted the results, it is not within the realm of likelihood. So I use ½ a percent as it’s what most Secretaries of State have set as a threshold, and this is based on the reliability of their counting mechanisms and past experience with recount results. So often, because it is technically possible that a 1 or even 2% gap could be erased by a big enough series of mistakes, often the laws that are passed reflect that the state bears responsibility for the natural built in margin of error, if the results fall within what the state can reasonably consider to be a tie, the state will bear the cost of a recount. However, if it is “possible” but not at all likely that the results would change enough to make a difference, a candidate has the right to ask for a recount if he/she is willing to pay for it. The state bears the responsibility for ultimately getting it right, it does not bear the responsibility of paying for any also ran’s attempts to grasp at straws.

But you really want to know why it’s a good idea, look at two recent case studies. In 2000 Bush vs. Gore, every state had counted, it was all down to Florida. If Bush won Florida, he would win the election by a margin of 271 to 267 electoral votes…you need at least 270 to win, so his victory would be based not only on only one more vote than needed, but would be in spite of Gore having defeated Bush in the popular vote by half a percent or 500,000+ actual votes. Florida was worth 25 electoral votes, if Gore had won Florida, the tally would have been 246 to 292….a margin of 46 electoral votes, not 4 as was the case. And we all know how that turned out, but what is really significant is that the only reason we got the result we did was because no full recount was ever done. This is really Gore’s fault for not requesting what was legally his right, a full recount paid for by the state of Florida. Because even though the national results were half a percentage point difference, there were 6 million ballots cast and only an initial difference of a couple hundred votes. Now Gore wanted to pick and choose and Bush wanted to claim victory based on the initial results…that’s politics, and by trying to parse things rather than just going with a full recount, which Bush really would have had no legal grounds to object to, Gore ended up in a situation where it became possible for the highly partisan Secretary of State of Florida and Supreme Court of the United States to intervene to stop the count while Bush was ahead. In fact, after the election was all said and done, 6 different newspapers conducted their own full and total recounts of Florida, 5 of them found that Gore won the popular vote in Florida, and the only one who found otherwise was a right leaning publication with a vested interest in Bush’s presidency. Now, whether that was a palatable thing to you personally or not, even if you thank God every day that Bush became President, even on a technicality, there is no question that a full recount would have changed the results, and if that had happened, the US would be in a very different place than it is today. Whether that would better or worse, though I’m confident it would be better, is irrelevant, fact is the entire course of human history was changed because no recount was done.

The other example is where I live, Minnesota, our Senate election in 2008 between Al Franken and Norm Coleman originally gave the election to Coleman by just over 100 votes out of well over 2 million cast. In the recount, many of the things I told you could and did happen were actually found. We had ballots that were missing and never counted, ballots which were improperly rejected, tallying errors, machine read errors, etc. We had a panel go through every single ballot cast to determine the actual intent of the voter. And the results of the election were overturned. That also can be said to have changed the course of human history, like it or not, because Franken in the Senate gave Democrats a 60/40 margin (though not for long) instead of a 59/41 margin. When Scott Brown won Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat, bringing the balance of power back down to 59/41, the historic health care reform, which WILL change the very course of human history in immeasurable ways (regardless of whether you think that is a good or bad thing) was considered to be dead. But it was only because the Senate with this hypermajority had passed an original version of the bill that Congress was able to adopt what had been passed and vote on fixes to the bill. Had there been no recount, we would have sent the person to Washington who had fewer votes, and he would have voted differently on the original bill and we would not have health care reform.

So, it’s critical that if election results fall in an area where the margin is close enough that a recount could change the results, that we should conduct one, fully and impartially with the intention of determining the actual will of the voters. If we didn’t do that, why even bother having elections?

ETpro's avatar

@DarkScribe I bet thise counting parties can get intense. :-)

@dalepetrie Wow. Now THAT’S an answer. Thanks.

dalepetrie's avatar

@ETpro – I don’t believe in doing anything half assed.

ETpro's avatar

@dalepetrie Ha! I think you must have been waiting for this question, thinking daily about all the things to say when it finally shows up. :=)

I deeply appreciate the thought and effort you put into it.

dalepetrie's avatar

@ETpro – I think it’s more a function of the fact that the disputed Senate race was a very big deal to me for a lot of reasons that I haven’t articulated and as such, I followed the proceedings very carefully and learned a lot about how our electoral system actually works. So it wasn’t that I was just waiting for this question, but as it happened, personal experience had left me quite well prepared to answer it.

ETpro's avatar

@dalepetrie Well I am a political junkie and certainly appreciated being the beneficiary of that interest. If you want, feel free to PM me with the back story.

dalepetrie's avatar

I’ll do that when I have a few minutes, maybe tomorrow.

ETpro's avatar

@dalepetrie Cool. I am looking forward to reading it.

mattbrowne's avatar

If it uses the same method it wouldn’t. Then we only know whether the figures match or not. A third recount is necessary.

A different more elaborate method for the second count can be more accurate though.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne From what I am learning in the answers, it is a more accurate, painstaking count that is used.

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