When are recounts reasonable?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election recount started this week. The margin a was bit over 7,000 votes and the percentage just under 0.5% as required by law. John Nichols writes in Recount reasonable — just ask a Republican, of past instances where the loser asked for recounts in much wider margins and of cases with relatively close margins where the original result was overturned <read>

Back in 1960, when the closest presidential race in modern American history was decided for Democrat John Kennedy, the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties sought recounts in 11 states, including Texas. Kennedy’s advantage over Republican Richard Nixon in Texas in the initial count was 46,000 votes. While Democrats objected that Kennedy’s margin was too large to be overturned, Republicans argued that allegations of voting irregularities in a number of Texas counties justified the demand.

Similarly, in the 1976 presidential race, after Democrat Jimmy Carter beat Republican Gerald Ford in Ohio by more than 9,000, Republicans sought a recount of the votes in that state.

And just last year in Minnesota’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Mark Dayton led Republican Tom Emmer by a little less than 9,000 votes. A hand recount of the state’s ballots confirmed Dayton’s winning margin was 8,770 votes. Emmer’s campaign and the state Republican Party continued to wage court fights and challenge ballots until more than a month after the election, when Emmer finally conceded.

In all three cases, Republicans made reasonable requests for recounts, even if those requests failed to overturn the results.

But Wisconsinites know that recounts can alter results.

In 1970, it appeared that Les Aspin had lost a Democratic primary to Doug La Follette in southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. But after the official canvass, the margin of victory for La Follette — now Wisconsin’s secretary of state — was less than 0.5 percent of the vote. That enabled the former Pentagon aide to seek a recount paid for by the state. The recount found enough uncounted Aspin votes, most of them in Kenosha, to put him ahead of La Follette.

Barely a month after the primary was finally settled in his favor, Aspin defeated Republican Congressman Henry Schadeberg and began a distinguished career that would eventually see him chair the House Armed Services Committee before his appointment as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense.

In 1982, it appeared that Democrat Russ Feingold had lost his first political race to Republican state Sen. Everett Bidwell. But the vote in the south-central Wisconsin Senate district was close enough to entitle Feingold to a state-sanctioned recount. He pursued it and, after uncounted Feingold votes turned up in rural Sauk County and on a broken voting machine at a school in Dane County, the result was reversed. Feingold was elected to the state Senate and a decade later became a U.S. senator, serving 18 years as the chamber’s most independent and principled member.

Elections are huge endeavors, involving thousands, sometimes millions, of votes that are tabulated by poll workers and clerks who are — like all of us — imperfect human beings.

When dealing with so many variables, mistakes and missteps are to be expected.

Recounts set things right. They identify actual winners, as well as flaws in the voting and counting systems of the state.

Wisconsin law calls for machine recounts unless a candidate objects. In this case many precincts are being hand counted to preserve the memory card used in the election. They could use alternate memory cards, but their scanners are so old that the manufacturer cannot supply them. From what we have seen Wisconsin’s recount law is stronger than Connecticut’s – Wisconsin calls for each ballot to be reviewed by those representing opposing candidates to make sure they agree it can be counted by machine – Connecticut’s does not – only by procedure do we call for election officials, not candidate representatives, to check ballots. In fact, our recanvass law remains stuck in the lever age presuming that tabulators do no have ballots. Connecticut procedures but not our law may be reasonable for moderately close races, but insufficient when voter intent and absentee ballot adjudication becomes critical.

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