How Do Election Recounts Work? What You Need To Know

These 2020 battleground states are still counting votes. Here are the rules for recounts if Trump and Biden go down to the wire.

Though it looks like Democratic nominee Joe Biden has won, the outcome of the presidential election is so close in several states that recounts are likely to happen.

Per the US Constitution, it’s up to states how they do congressional and presidential elections, and so the procedures for a recount are a matter of state law. In some states, a close result can automatically trigger a recount; in others, a campaign can request one.

Recounts are unlikely to dramatically shift the results. FairVote, a nonpartisan group that pushes for electoral reform, analysed nearly 2,000 recounts in statewide elections over the past two decades and found that only three reversed the result. The average shift in the margin in those statewide recounts was 430 votes ― a far smaller swing than President Donald Trump would need to overtake Biden in key states.

Here’s what the recount procedures look like in the six states everyone is watching.


Georgia seems most likely to head toward a recount. As of Friday afternoon, Joe Biden had a narrow lead of about 4,000 votes, with nearly 5 million votes cast. Officials are still counting absentee and provisional ballots. There are also nearly 9,000 outstanding military and overseas absentee ballots that will still be counted if they were postmarked by Election Day and are received by the end of Friday.

Under state law, campaigns can request a recount if the margin of victory is less than half of one percent of the total votes cast. The law does not specify when or how quickly the recount has to happen.

“As we are closing in on a final count, we can begin to look toward our next steps,” Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger (Republican) said Friday. ”With a margin that small, there will be a recount in Georgia.”


Wisconsin does not require automatic recounts, but a candidate can request a recount if the vote margins are within 1%. As of Friday afternoon, Biden led Trump by less than 1% – 49.6% to 48.9% – prompting the Trump campaign to request a recount on Wednesday, which according to state law the campaign will have to pay for.

The campaign, however, won’t be able to file a recount petition until Wisconsin certifies its results, which are due the latest Dec. 1. The recount must be completed within 13 days after the original results are in.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien alleged voter suppression in several Wisconsin counties, despite no evidence of any wrongdoing at the polls or in the ballot count. “There have been reports of irregularities in several Wisconsin counties which raise serious doubts about the validity of the results,” Stepien said on Wednesday.

Despite being asked for evidence of the alleged widespread voter fraud, the Trump campaign has none.

Wisconsin Elections Commission director Meagan Wolfe rebuked the Trump campaign’s claim, telling reporters on Wednesday: “It’s insulting for our local election officials to say that yesterday’s election was anything but an incredible success.”

Wisconsin has some recent recount experience. In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein requested a recount, which cost upward of $3.5 million (£2.7m) and only changed roughly 1,500 votes out of 3 million.


Voters here can request a recount but an election decided by less than half a percent of the total vote automatically triggers one. As of Friday afternoon, the vote total put Biden ahead of Trump by less than 15,000 votes, with 49.5% of the vote to Trump’s 49.3%, apparently still within the recount range with 2% of ballots still outstanding.

If a recount does occur, state law says it would have to be completed by November 24.

People participate in a protest in support of counting all votes on Nov. 4 in Philadelphia as the election in Pennsylvania is still unresolved.
People participate in a protest in support of counting all votes on Nov. 4 in Philadelphia as the election in Pennsylvania is still unresolved.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images


Nevada does not have a state law triggering an automatic recount. A losing candidate can request a recount within three working days of the certification of the count. They would have to pay for it, but if the recount finds they in fact got the most votes, that candidate can get their money back. The state has 10 days to complete the recount.

As of Friday afternoon’s count on the state Board of Elections site, Biden was leading Trump by 20,137 votes – or 1.6% – with about 85% of votes counted.


State law here says a recount is automatically triggered if the margin is 0.1% of the total votes cast – which would be just about 200 votes, and which secretary of state Katie Hobbs (Democrat) says is highly unlikely. Arizona does not allow candidates to request a recount.

Biden was leading Trump by 39,769 votes in Arizona as of Friday afternoon.


State law here requires a recount when there are less than 2,000 votes separating the top two candidates. As of Friday afternoon, Biden had a 146,000-vote advantage, with 99% of estimated votes counted – making an automatic recount unlikely.

But a candidate can ask for a recount if they have a good-faith belief that they have a “reasonable chance of winning the election,” according to Michigan state law. The Trump campaign has up to 48 hours after the election results are finalised, which Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson said could take up to two weeks, to request a recount. The deadline to complete the recount is 30 days.

While the Trump campaign has not asked for a recount in Michigan, it did file a lawsuit alleging that state officials had mishandled the vote counting process. “I see this as a meritless, frivolous lawsuit that’s really just an attempt to sow seeds of doubt in the integrity of our elections process, which are quite secure, quite accessible,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) told ABC News on Thursday.

Trump won Michigan by less than 1%, or 10,704 votes, in 2016. A partial recount was conducted then at the request of Green Party candidate Stein, but it was stopped halfway after a state supreme court judge ruled Stein had no real chance of winning and therefore had no legal standing to request a recount. The stipulation that a candidate must have a reasonable belief that they could win was then added to the recount law in 2016 after Stein’s recount request.


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