By Patrick Colbeck
Anyone who has been reading the content at Let’s Fix Stuff for awhile knows that I am not a huge fan of election investigators pursuing recounts as a means of discovering election fraud.
What questions cannot be answered by recounts?
- How many ballots were Fraudulently “Stuffed” into ballot box?
- How many ineligible voters fraudulently cast ballots?
- What caused the variance between the certified and recount results?
What questions can be answered by recounts?
- How many ballots were stored by clerk?
- How many votes were cast across all stored ballots counted?
- What is the variance between certified ballot and vote count and recount values?
I believe that recounts should be an ingredient of any professional audit of the entire election record chain of custody, but there are very few circumstances where recounts should be an end in and of themselves.
Having said that, if you do find yourself pursuing a recount here are some tips on how to perform them effectively.
STEP 1: Preparation
The key to any meaningful recount is preparation.
Understand the recount rules
Be sure to read any official guidelines provided by election officials regarding the conduct of recounts. The following guide provided by the Michigan Bureau of Elections is a good place to start for Michigan.
Other states are likely to have similar guides.
Understand the law.
In Michigan, the Michigan Compiled Laws including election law can be found at Legislature.MI.gov. The key statutes governing the execution of recounts in Michigan are MCL 168.863, MCL 168.866, MCL 168.867 and MCL 168.880.
Sadly, that can often be significantly different from the “rules” handed out by the Secretary of State due to the lack of regular book audits. Book audits help to ensure that all guidance issued by the Secretary of State is compliant with the actual law. These “book audits” are analogous with regulatory compliance analyses in which proposed regulations from the executive branch are evaluated against the actual provisions of law.
It is often too late to school yourself on recount law after the recount has been conducted. Do yourself a favor so that your sacrifice of time is well spent by knowing the law beforehand.
Establish a benchmark for your recount efforts by clearly understanding the election results which have already been certified. In this pursuit, obtain copies of the following information from election officials by simple request or via FOIA requests prior to the recount:
- Statements of votes for each precinct. These statements typically include the number of ballots cast and the number of votes cast for each candidate in a given contest. (Required)
- Obtain candidate campaign data showing targeted number of votes for each precinct (If available)
- Tabulator tapes for each tabulator used to count votes recorded on in-person and absentee ballots (Optional)
- Collect incidents of malfeasance from poll challengers so that you know where to look for any evidence of malfeasance during the recount
Prepare this information in tables that can be shared with other recount observers so that everyone understands what the official benchmark is.
Once your election data has been obtained, put it to work.
- Compare targeted number of votes with actual number of votes in Statement of Votes for each precinct
- Rank precincts from highest variance to lowest
- Determine if the sum of the variances would be sufficient to overturn the election results
- Determine if there are any incidents of malfeasance that would warrant targeting any specific precincts for reasons other than significant variances. Under Michigan law MCL 168.872, if there are is evidence of fraud it may trigger an audit that goes beyond the scope of a simple recount.
- Create a list of precincts that should be examined for a recount.
The analysis phase should help to conclude whether or not a recount would achieve the desired objective. A proper analysis of election will help to avoid any wasteful expenditure of time by volunteers or money by campaigns.
On the subject of expenditures, recounts are not typically free. Any candidate or representative of a ballot initiative seeking a recount needs to ensure there is sufficient to cover the recount should the results not be overturned. The following extract from the Michigan Bureau of Election Recount Summary document provides some idea of the funding requirements.
As you can tell from the pricing model defined above, the larger the number of precincts which need to be recounted, the larger the financial liability. Statewide campaigns in this light can be particularly expensive.
File Petition for Recount
If your analysis indicates a path to success and you have sufficient funding reserved in case it is not successful, you are ready to conduct a recount. Petitions for recounts must then be filed with the pertinent governing authorities. These authorities should be explicitly defined in recount manuals and/or in state law.
Be sure to pay attention to timing requirements necessary for recounts.
Once a petition for a recount has been filed, you will need to organize volunteers to serve as poll observers. Ideally, you have a sufficient number of poll observers to cover each precinct undergoing a recount. You would be well-served to ensure that you have extra observers available in case there are conflicts between the recount timelines and the availability of observers. The process of coordinating volunteer assignments can be one of the most time-consuming aspects of conducting a recount.
STEP 2: Execution
Establish Site Leaders
Once your recount petition has been filed, you will be notified as to when and where the recount will be conducted. If there are multiple locations, ensure that there is a designated recount leader for each location who has access to the data collected during the Preparation step.
Train Your Recount Observers
Ensure that your observers are well-trained in the recount process and governing law prior to the recount. Train your site leaders first and then equip them to train the other recount observers that will be working with them.
Before the ballot containers are opened for the recount, there will typically be an opportunity to ensure that the site is prepared to conduct the recount. Election officials will be present that should be able to answer some fairly basic questions regarding the tabulation of the results.
Remember, a recount is simply a means of verifying that the votes have been tabulated correctly. If electronic voting systems are used to conduct this tabulation, make sure that you have as much information as possible about specifically which systems were used. This information may indicate evidence of election fraud that could be addressed at the completion of the recount.
Observers also need to check and see if there are ballot containers for the targeted precincts. They should ensure that these containers have the appropriate seals applied in order to improve confidence that there has been no tampering of the ballots in preparation for the recount. A recount of phony ballots is a phony recount.
In order to assist in their observations, each observer should be equipped with a form similar to the one below.
The information highlighted in gray should be completed prior to the opening of any ballot container.
During the recount, use the white space provided to indicate votes for each ballot measure and capture notes pertinent to the conduct of the recount including any statutory violations or process anomalies.
STEP 3: Analyze Results
Once the recount of votes in each precinct has been completed, the recount observer forms should be provided to the recount leader for each site. If there are multiple sites, the recount leader should provide the forms for their site to the overall recount coordinator.
The recount coordinator can then consolidate all of the data from the recount forms into a single report such as the MS Excel file available by clicking on the figure below.
The results can then be analyzed to determine whether or not the recount results justify a change to the certified results.
STEP 4: Take Appropriate Action
Once a recount has been concluded, one or more of the following actions may be taken:
- Certified election results have been confirmed and no further action is required
- Certified election results need to be updated by pertinent boards of canvassers
- There is sufficient evidence of fraud to trigger the conduct of an audit that will investigate if other election records have been subverted in a manner sufficient to overturn the election results.
Each of these actions would be conducted in accordance with established law.
STEP 5: Communications
It would be nice if the results of a recount would be shared in context of what it does or doesn’t mean by media outlets, but that doesn’t always happen. Often, regardless of the results of a recount, opposing sides of a given ballot measure will use the results to push a narrative biased towards their cause. Be prepared to engage in this battle of competing narratives in the wake of the recount…and often during the recount. Press releases should always be prepared that carefully assert what was found by the recount and what was not found by the recount. Always promote the truth and you will sleep well at night.
One of the major reasons that I am not a fan of recounts is that, once the results are released, recounts tend to inoculate the public against any further investigation of a given election. My investigations have revealed that the bulk of election fraud, even the fraud enabled by electronic voting systems, would never be detected during a recount. So I have found that our election laws and election officials often attempt to steer citizens concerned about election fraud into conducting recounts so that they can put the integrity of the election to bed quickly.
As you can see, a recount is not a trivial undertaking. It requires significant investment of time and money to execute. Furthermore, unless properly messaged, the conduct of a recount may be used as a pretense to dismiss any allegations of election fraud. Recounts only examine a very thin slice of the election record chain of custody. As such, they are not compelling indicators of election integrity. Only a full-forensic audit of the entire election record chain of custody could result in such a declaration.
- Election Recounts: How Useful Are They?
- What is a Full Forensic Audit?
- What Is A Forensic Audit?
- Antrim County Election: Audit or No Audit?