Ask an Official: County clerk discusses the election recount process
This week’s featured question was asked of Lincoln County Clerk Chris Marlowe
The question reads: “I’m interested in learning more about the recounts that were made earlier this month. What exactly is a recount and what is all involved in it? Are there certain rules for a recount to be called? I seen on the news it cost $400 I think they said, did the candidates pay for that or how was it paid for? How often do these sorts of things happen? Thank you”
Answer as given by Marlowe:
“Elections are often decided by a few votes. In many cases they are decided by one or two votes out of the several hundred or even several thousand votes that are cast. An election may even end in a tie vote. These circumstances encourage a candidate, typically the one who loses the election, to have all the ballots counted again to assure all legal votes are counted properly, any illegal votes are not counted, and the proper procedures for conducting the election were followed by the election officials.
“The process of counting the ballots again is known as a recount. There is no automatic recount. The procedures for requesting and conducting a recount are spelled out in the election laws. A recount is the exclusive remedy to test in court the right of a candidate to hold office based on the number of votes cast at an election. During a recount tabulators will scour every aspect of our Election Day processes looking for any errors that may have occurred. I will attempt to briefly take you through the process.
“A recount is administered by the Board of Canvassers (BOC). Our Board of Canvassers consists of one representative from each primary political party and the chief election official of the county (County Clerk). The BOC is tasked with certifying each election and administering recounts when petitioned to do so. All BOC meetings and recounts are open meetings and subject to open records laws. BOC/Recount agendas and minutes can be found on the county website or in the county clerk’s office. The meeting begins with an announcement to the public specifying why we are here. Oaths of office are administered by the county clerk for the BOC/Recount members and tabulators. Tabulators are normally selected from the crew of election inspectors that worked the particular poll where the election took place. There are basically three tasks that are accomplished to verify our final count.
“Our first task is to examine all of our absentee ballot envelopes and ballots. Here we are looking for errors that may have occurred. There are several things that must be completed by the issuing municipal clerk, voter, and Election Day inspectors. Tabulators must verify that these were all completed. If it is determined that an error occurred the BOC can call for a draw-down. If there is one error, then one ballot must be randomly eliminated from the final count. Tabulators must first separate the absentee ballots from the Election Day ballots (EDBs). These can usually be found due to the creases left on the ballot from being folded in an envelope. Absentee ballots contain one set of initials as opposed to EDBs having two sets of initials. Ballots are shuffled, turned upside down, and one ballot is drawn for elimination. This mat actually work against the petitioner. For the reason of voter anonymity, there is no way to determine the actual ballot associated with the particular envelope that was determined to have the error.
“Our second task is to count all our ballots to verify that the number of ballots equal the total number of voters. There are two ways to actually recount the ballots. Ballots can be run through our optical scanners again or they can be hand-counted. Lincoln County is a relatively small county so our BOC chooses to hand count our recounts. This also eliminates any election equipment errors. Our hand count numbers should match the optical scanner result tapes from our Election Day closing reports. In the event of a registered write-in or perhaps a race without a candidate name, all ballots must be checked for write-in names. These names are then tallied and compared with the Election Day totals.
“Our third task is to reconcile both poll books which contain all registered voters, voter numbers, and voter signatures for the particular municipal polling site (Precinct). In precincts where there are multiple wards requiring multiple ballot styles, we must determine that each voter was issued the correct ballot for his or her ward. If it is determined that a ballot was issued incorrectly the BOC can declare a draw-down if too many ballots were issued. If a ballot was issued incorrectly leaving the recounted race short of ballots, there is nothing that can be done unless a voter’s intent can be determined from any of the ballots from the wards not being recounted. This is often hard for the petitioner to understand or accept. Poll workers, like us all, are subject to human error. In this instance blame can also be put on the voter receiving the incorrect ballot. Municipal and county clerks notice voters on several occasions to educate them on what to expect on their ballot on Election Day. Notices are found in the county’s official newspapers, the county’s website (http://www.co.lincoln.wi.us/), the state’s voter website (https://myvote.wi.gov/en-us/) and on the polling place notification boards.
“A petition for recount must be made for a recount to occur. This is normally done by the losing candidate. The deadline for a recount is three business days after the election’s BOC Meeting or no later than 4:00 PM on the tenth day following the election. The statutes that govern who pays for a recount along with all other recount laws can be found in chapter 9 of the Wisconsin State Statutes. In the case of our most recent recounts the margin of difference was less than 10 votes, so the county absorbed the costs associated with the process. This cost to the county approximately $400 per recount. In the event of a federal recount, all precincts are recounted. This requires many more tabulators and many more hours and fortunately is paid by the petitioner.
“Recounts do not occur very often. Since I have been in office (2013), there have been four, three county supervisor and one presidential. This is an unusually high amount in a 5 year span. There are approximately only 1400 voters in each of our 22 supervisory districts. This low amount subjects us to a higher risk of a race being determined by a few votes. Our recent recount activity suggests that more people are engaging in local politics, which is always good thing. The recent recount activity has helped in my development as our county clerk. I feel we have established a very sound recount process here in Lincoln County. The recounts have also reassured us that our election equipment is very reliable.”
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