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Question of the Month ~ December 2010

How do states in the Midwest handle recounts in legislative and statewide elections?
Election recount laws vary greatly in the Midwest. In some states, recounts are automatically triggered in close races. In addition, a number of states in this region allow candidates, election officials or the voters themselves to request recounts.

Illinois uses a unique system that involves discovery recounts, in which the loser of an election who comes within 5 percent of the apparent winner can request a review of ballots. The initiator may only request a recount in up to 25 percent of the precincts and must pay $10 per precinct.

These discovery recounts do not change the outcome of the election, but they allow candidates to collect information with which to contest an election. At that point, a public hearing is held and a judge must decide whether to request a full recount of all ballots.

In five Midwestern states — Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio — recounts are automatically launched when the difference between candidates’ totals is small, according to Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparent and accurate elections.

In Michigan, ballots are recounted if the margin between candidates is less than 2,000 votes, regardless of how many total votes were cast. In the other states, a recount is triggered based on vote margin. For example, in Minnesota, a recount is launched if the margin between candidates is less than 0.5 percent of total votes cast. In Ohio, the margin is 0.25 percent.

In Nebraska and North Dakota, the number of total votes cast is not used in the recount formula. Instead, the vote margin is calculated by dividing the difference in the number of votes cast for the two candidates by the total number of votes garnered by the candidate who is in the lead. In these two states, a recount is less statistically likely. In Nebraska, a recount occurs if the margin is 1 percent or less. In North Dakota primary elections, the threshold is 1 percent or less; for general and special elections, it is 0.5 percent.

An election that results in a tie triggers an automatic recount in South Dakota.

All 11 Midwestern states allow candidates to request a recount, but they have different laws governing the process. In Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota, a close vote margin is required.

States also differ on the required time period for requesting a recount. In Iowa, for example, the request must come within three days of the election; in Nebraska, legislative candidates have up to four weeks.

In many Midwestern states (all but Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin), the payer of costs depends on the outcome of the recount. All of these states require the initiator to submit a deposit in advance to potentially cover the costs of reviewing ballots. For example, Kansas requires a deposit ranging from $100 to $1,000, depending on the office for which the ballots are reviewed. If the recount determines that the apparent winner did not actually garner the most votes, the fee is refunded.

In all but two Midwestern states (Nebraska and North Dakota), voters can initiate a recount of results for ballot initiatives and questions. For example, in Ohio, any five voters may join together to request a recount. In Indiana, any voter in an election that included a public question may petition for a recount; the petition must include the signatures of 10 percent of the people who cast ballots on the question.

In two Midwestern states — Iowa and Kansas — election officials may request a recount.

The Mission of CSG
and CSG Midwest

The Council of State Governments is the nation's only nonpartisan association of state officials serving all three branches of government in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. CSG is a regionally-based, national organization that promotes excellence in state government. CSG fosters the interstate exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy, and it offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships. CSG Midwest focuses on meeting the needs of state policymakers and leaders in the nation's heartland, including 11 Midwestern states.