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electionlineWeekly — February 1, 2018

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Five rules for a successful recount
Although not common, recounts serve as teaching moments for officials

By James Witkowski, elections support technician
David Levine, elections director
Ada County, Idaho

Elections are often close -- sometimes the difference can be one or two votes, and in rare instances (as happened in a 2017 Virginia House race and a southeast Idaho City Council race) an election can even end in a tie.

In these close races, sometimes automatic recounts are triggered and other times a request for a recount is made by the losing candidate. Recounts ensure that all legal votes are properly counted, improperly cast votes are not counted, and appropriate procedures were followed.

Recounts are designed to ensure election results are correct, reinforcing public confidence in the fairness and accuracy of our elections.

When recounts do happen they are matchless “teaching moments” for election administrators, candidates, and the public.

In Ada County, Idaho,  were part of a city council election recount in 2017 that was at times stressful and unnerving, but preparation and planning made what could have been a difficult situation much easier.

Here are five rules for a successful recount -- meaning an anti-climactic event for all involved with accepted results in the end.

1) Prepare for inquisitive candidates, members of the public and of course the media. Election administrators care about elections because it’s what we do. Candidates care about them because this is how they are “hired” by the electorate – their livelihoods and months (sometimes years) of work are on the line. Candidates, their campaign staff, and the public and media must understand what happened and what will happen when ballots are recounted. Allowing room for speculation only invites problems. Have clear, easily understood printouts of election night results, counting procedures and Logic and Accuracy (L&A) outcomes on hand for all interested parties and be prepared to explain each of the documents, patiently several times.   

2) Ensure that your election office’s processes comply with relevant recount laws and administrative guidance.  The level of scrutiny is always higher when there’s a recount, so be methodical. For the city council election recount, our office reviewed relevant statutes and regulations and updated our procedures to comply with them; prepared answers to the obvious technical questions before they were asked so that our team could function properly and proceed toward completion without getting side-tracked; and received advance approval from the people overseeing the recount before taking crucial steps. We also conducted mock recount elections to test our procedures and try to poke holes in them. We wanted to be prepared to stop for any reason, and to resume when permitted to do so.

3) Expect pressure and scrutiny, and deal with the resulting anxiety by maintaining your equipment, training your people, rehearsing the steps of a recount beforehand, being transparent, and keeping your cool. Murphy’s Law often rears its head during recounts -- equipment failures, human errors, and other hiccups can mar the recount process, but if you are prepared you can quickly right the ship and, as importantly, explain what happened and why it won’t happen again. Address problems/concerns honestly and fully as they arise and carry on with professionalism and transparency.

4) Know your mission is honesty and accuracy -- a recount that treats all parties fairly (especially the loser and therefore the public) and goes above and beyond to be transparent is key to building trust.  Don’t forget a key secondary mission  – discovering and fixing any faults in your counting procedure. If you encounter a problem, recall (and act on) the Chinese proverb – “If we don’t change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

5) Prepare a post mortem following your recount that you can use as a roadmap for the next time. You will feel depleted and (hopefully) relieved, but don’t wait before memorializing and acting on lessons learned from the experience.

Recounts don’t happen often, for which election administrators can be eternally grateful.  When they do occur, good administrators depend on transparency, preparation, a level head and a resolve to implement any lessons learned to get the most from the experience.