Between 2000 and 2009, recounts in state elections were extremely uncommon and rarely resulted in reversals when they did happen, according to a new study [PDF] by the Center for Voting and Democracy.
Out of 2,884 statewide general elections there were 18 recounts, only three of which resulted in a change in decision.
“There are people who have been pretty critical of the way that we do a lot of voting, thinking it could be done better. But at the same time the basic function of tallying ballots once the voter gets them to their poll worker or the machine, it seems to actually be doing well,” said Robert Richie, co-author of the study.
The study also found that margin shifts in recounts were small. In 15 of the 18 recounts the margin of victory was changed by fewer than 500 votes. And statewide recounts resulted in an average swing of less than 300 votes between the front-runners.
The study recommends that states revise their laws to clearly define when a recount should take place. Because of the accuracy of the machines and the cost, Richie said only the closest races need to trigger a recount.
“Having an automatic recount procedure for a race won by 0.5 percent, that’s way too high, absent some reason to think that there’s something that was systematically done in error or fraud.”
But Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, said the systems used in many states can't be recounted because of their design. And even where recountable systems are used, fraud and error can easily go undetected if a race is not close enough to merit a recount.
“You’ve got 18 recounts out of close to 3,000 contests, three of which resulted in decisions being reversed," she said. "Well, three isn’t a large percentage out of 3,000, but it’s a sixth of 18. If those are the only cases that you’re doing a recount in, I think you have to look at that."
Californians have been nothing if not skeptical when it comes to using electronic machines and adopting methods like ranked-choice voting.
But Smith said California is ahead of the curve when it comes to many of these issues. The state has been conducting a baseline manual tally of 1 percent of precincts in every county for decades. And in 2007, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen commissioned a "top-to-bottom review" of voting systems and created a Post Election Audit Standards Working Group [PDF].
California also recently passed legislation launching a "risk-limiting audit" program to increase the scrutiny of electronic voting machines, which is something that Richie calls for in the study.
"Recount laws should go hand in hand with rigorous post-election audit procedures designed to identify outcomes that may be questionable due to fraud or error no matter what the initial margin."